Ursula Todd lives and dies (and lives again) in ‘Life After Life’

In Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Ursula Todd is born in the British countryside in 1910 — and dies almost immediately, umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, “a helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky.”

No matter. She’s born again — and again and again and again. Each time, snow falls (“She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring. …”) Each time, she adjusts to avoid death for a little while, or maybe life adjusts itself around this second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance.

Two things are implicit in such a setup: a warning (some repetition lies ahead) and a promise (don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, and you won’t be bored). The gifted Atkinson, best known for the excellent suspense series that began with Case Histories, is clever and talented enough to build on this shifting foundation, and she tells the story of Ursula’s odd existence with enough twists and revelations to keep the reader guessing. She’s so adept at propelling us through this hefty novel, which flits through both World Wars and beyond, that we’re able to temporarily overlook the first two pages, in which Ursula employs the most egregious cliche available to alternative histories.

How much weight do two pages carry against hundreds that invent breathtaking ways to examine the whims of fate, the cost of war, the human tenacity for survival? Life After Life eventually returns to the unfortunate development — the least interesting part of the novel — but until it does, Atkinson keeps us enthralled with how Ursula shapes her destiny.

Death is capricious in Atkinson’s hands. “One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot,” she writes. That’s one of the jolts of Life After Life: Ursula’s deaths are so tragically preventable. If only her mother had paid more attention to her children at the seashore. If only Ursula’s unpleasant older brother, Maurice, hadn’t thrown her doll onto the icy roof. If only the scullery maid hadn’t traveled to London to celebrate the end of The War to End All Wars with her sweetheart and returned home infected with Spanish flu. “If only” reverberates through the book the way pangs of regret surface when we look back and wish we’d made different choices. We can’t. But Ursula, the “odd one out” in the Todd clan, can.

As she lives and dies and lives again, there are almost imperceptible changes in the fortunes of her family: jovial father, Hugh, a World War I veteran; intractable mother, Sylvie (so British she can “reduce the Third Reich to a ‘fuss’ ”); terrible Maurice; clear-eyed sister, Pamela, and beloved little brothers, Teddy and Jimmy; and unconventional Aunt Isobel, who writes awful adventure books for boys but is always there for Ursula.

Atkinson recreates the family dynamics deftly, but the most shattering parts of Life After Life encompass Ursula’s experiences in London during the Blitz, all the more sobering because they are rendered unsentimentally. Atkinson has written movingly about Britain at war before, in her fine novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but Life After Life’s relentless depiction of the sights and sounds of the bombings are chilling, unforgettable.

Sometimes, a party atmosphere prevails for the rescue workers (Ursula joined up eventually): “There was a full-scale raid in progress, bombers droning overhead, glinting occasionally when they caught a searchlight. HE bombs flashed and roared and the large batteries banged and whuffed and cracked — all the usual racket. Shells whistled or screamed on their way up, a mile a second until they winked and twinkled like stars before extinguishing themselves.”

And then, horror: “[M]angled bodies were strewn around, many of them no more than limbless torsos, like tailor’s dummies, their clothes blown off. … A stretcher-bearer, lacking as yet any live casualties, was picking up limbs — arms and legs that were sticking out of the rubble. He looked as if he was intending to piece the dead together again at a later date.”

A message delivered after one terrible raid — “Ted has caught one, I’m afraid” — sets Ursula on her final course, but is it final? If she stops the war before it starts, won’t she just die and have to do it all over again? Her particular course of action means almost certain death. So will she change things in the long run?

Life After Life isn’t science fiction; it’s ambitious literary fiction exploring the nature of destiny and what we might do to change it if we could. But even fantasy has to make sense on its own terms, and the book falls short of that goal. Still, there’s much to treasure here. “Life was going on. A thing of beauty,” Ursula notes at one point, just before the darkness takes her. Atkinson’s novel unearths the joy in the simple passing of our days.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

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