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.