Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is one of the most buzzed adult books of the year so far. It has starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. Outside of the library world, it’s gotten glowing reviews from Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and many others. And it has a nice, hooky (if not entirely original) gimmick: protagonist Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910, and lives out each of her several lives until an untimely death, at which point she starts over, never quite understanding that she has lived her life before—and in several of her lives, she has the opportunity to meet and possibly kill Adolf Hitler.
So it was with more than a little dismay that I found myself rejecting it for review for this blog. Fortunately, our reviewer Diane Colson read the novel as well and loved it, giving me (and this blog) a great opportunity to revisit the book, in the form of a dialogue about why our opinions differed so much. Since I’m the one fighting the tide of critical opinion, I’ll try to justify myself first.
MARK: I first heard about the novel on Barbara Hoffert’s Prepub column at Library Journal, as one of “Barbara’s Picks,” and was immediately excited to read it. And indeed, for the first 100 pages or so, I was convinced that I had a starred review on my hands. Most important (to me) Atkinson’s language is gorgeous, and her prose creates a wonderful counterpoint to the story as she freely intertwines characters’ memories of prior conversations or quick flashbacks into scenes so that the reader is always slightly off balance as to when each scene is taking place. Atkinson is also an expert at weaving her ideas and themes into the most commonplace of dialogues.
The gimmick of the novel is not terribly new, but still interesting enough, especially in the early going. But as I waded into the long central section of the novel, in which Ursula lives through World War II several times, the novel began to unravel for me. After the first few times Ursula is reborn, she starts to get strange hints of the future that bleed through from her past lives, and begins to take some active control and try to prevent bad things that have happened. But then abruptly, this thread is dropped, and the reader is treated to several hundred pages of two or three of Ursula’s lives stretching out into WWII (and sometimes beyond) in which she seems to have no awareness at all of anything that has happened in her past lives.
On top of that, while I noted above Atkinson’s skill at integrating her themes into the novel, she has altogether too many ideas and themes to pursue and none of them seem to cohere. The piece of the novel that treats the hoary old question of “would you go back and kill Hitler?”, doesn’t actually seem to pertain to the novel’s main concerns which surround more interior questions of how it is best to live and whether a person’s actions define one or vice versa. This is all the more frustrating, because Atkinson doesn’t seem to want to grapple with the logistics of her gimmick: the “Hitler-time-travel question” is predicated on the theory that a tiny change in the past would have profound effects in the future. But Atkinson isn’t willing to spend the necessary time and effort thinking this through as it affects Ursula, because despite all the changes in her many lives, her family seems to always stay the same, and Ursula herself seems to run into the same people over and over. But there is no logic or consistency to how these encounters are applied.
OK, that’s enough for a first go round. Let’s turn to Diane and see what she has to say.
DIANE: Thank you for your insights, Mark. I’m happy that we agree on one thing: Atkinson is a fabulous writer. Her sentences are sleek but well-muscled, able to conjure characters with a sentence or two, as here: “Enid had auditioned for the part of plucky young London woman somewhere around 1940 and had been playing it with gusto ever since.” (p130) I also appreciated Atkinson’s subtle shifts in mood and plot direction with each revisiting to Ursula’s past/present. That would become even more interesting, I suspect, in a second reading.
Truthfully, my initial reaction was disappointment: Is this child ever going to make it past the age of five? It took me a bit to figure out the sequence, if any, in the subsequent chapters. The chapters entitled “Armistice” gave me a better idea of Ursula’s role. Ursula seemed more like a role than a full-fleshed character for much of the book to me. She was a witness to suffering. She tried to alleviate the suffering by altering the events that seemed directly causal. In the variations of “Armistice,” Ursula’s strategies become bolder, as if the earlier attempts have made a deepening mark in her consciousness. And yet, as the final rendition of “Armistice shows,” Ursula can change only her own actions; others maintain free will and calamity is not always averted.
I believe a major theme of the book is that of the witness. Ursula is cast into situations where there she witness great sufferings, which in some lives drive her to despair. These long stretches into the future that do throw off the rhythm of the book off a bit. But it seems necessary for Ursula to witness all that she intends to prevent, to pinpoint the correct moment for interference. This is all my interpretation, of course. Ursula’s sphere of concern widens from her family to the fate of England to the fate of Germans and Jews and finally to the descendants of Jews. Because of the structure of the book, it’s hard to say with certainty that this all happened sequentially. It certainly helps provide a linear guideline for readers.
Atkinson also drops clues that Ursula is not the only person with memories of past life experiences. Ursula’s own birth is dependent upon the intervention of others. I won’t give further examples because of spoiler potential, but it enhanced my appreciation to extend the story with such possibilities. Ursula herself muses over the metaphysical possibilities in her talks with Dr. Keppet. Is life circular rather than linear? Ursula states that, “…memories are sometimes in the future.” I felt this created intriguing questions. While reincarnation and concurrent universes are not unique themes in fiction, this might be a first exposure for some teen readers. It’s a major brain jostle when presented as credibly as Atkinson does here.
MARK: Thanks for your thoughts Diane. It actually sounds as if we had fairly similar reactions to the various aspects of the novel, but that for perhaps personal reasons chose to put different emphases on these aspects. I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable with my reactions, because usually I am a great defender of art that is bold and messy and doesn’t come together neatly, and yet that seems to be what I am criticizing her in Atkinson. But there you go: “do I contradict myself,” etc. I quite like your idea of Ursula as a “witness”, although I remain uncomfortable with the tensions between the themes of circularity and inevitability versus “the Hitler question.” But perhaps that is just my own hang up about what is, in the end, a somewhat silly hypothetical.
I will just bring up one other small complaint I had, because I think it ties into my larger complaint about the (in)coherence of the structure. Early on, it seemed that a major plot point was the seemingly random murder of a young girl (or sometimes two) in Ursula’s neighborhood. This plot point isn’t exactly dropped, but it is certainly given far less than what seemed to be its due as the novel proceeds. Again, I think this is a relatively minor point, but it seemed like a symptom of Atkinson’s failure (in my view) to have a complete grasp on her unwieldy plot.
I think I’ve probably rambled enough—I’ll let you have the final word on the book.
DIANE: Ursula does expound further on the possible circular nature of life near the end of the book. I’ll try to explore that part without plot spoilers, but readers may get unwanted glimpses into the conclusion (such as it is) of Ursula’s story.
Near the end of the book, Ursula says that life is not circular, but that it is like a palimpsest. I had to look that up: A palimpsest refers to writing paper that can be washed off and used again, as was done with old manuscripts. Sometimes the words of the original document seep through over time. My interpretation of this is that the vague sensations of foreboding, like the sudden grip of fear Ursula experiences before something terrible is about to happen, become stronger over time. She describes a time when she is sitting in a tea shop and is irresistibly compelled to dash out. When Ursula reaches her destination, recognized by the reader as a part of her past, her mind races:
The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside became the outside. Time was out of joint, that was for certain. (p505)
Like the enigmatic Dr. Kellet, Atkinson does not commit to a definitive explanation of Ursula’s condition. I think this pulls the reader deeper into their own personal interpretations. Generally I prefer a cleaner resolution to a novel, but since there’s nothing clean in the structure here, amorphous theorizing fits well.
I’m glad you brought up the example of the girl who is murdered, because I think it is that event that brings Ursula to an awakening. The murder is something that Ursula tries to prevent in all her lives. Sometimes we only know that it didn’t happen because the girl appears as a grown-up. Then there is a time that Ursula does not prevent the crime. At the moment when she could have acted, Ursula is swept up in the most distractible of distractions – romance. Afterwards, learning of the murder, Ursula suddenly knows she is culpable. “Something was riven, broken, a lightning fork cutting open a swollen sky.” (p504) I agree that this is a significant plot point and could have been given more space in the narrative. In the end, though, I think it packed a good punch.
So there you have it: two different takes on the artistic value of a very ambitious novel. The final question to ask (for this blog) is whether the book has teen appeal. Here, Diane and I are in pretty close agreement. Here’s what Diane said to me over an email:
The teens that I think would like this book are the ones who read things like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I spoke with quite a few teens who were reading the former in anticipation of the movie last year. My feeling is that the appeal is limited, really, but that the unusual structure and somewhat mystical overcast of repeated lives may hook some teens. It is true that Ursula is a young adult in several of the sections, but the sections where she grows older may be a bit dry for teen readers.
That pretty much sums up my feelings as well: a challenging book that some ambitious teens will love, but not one with broad appeal. That said, for those, like Diane, who find the book to be an artistic success, I think even that limited teen appeal is worth playing up to the right teens, and I might even see this novel as a dark-horse Alex Award contender, depending on how the committee comes down on the issues Diane and I have been discussing. But we’d love to hear from readers if anyone has yet another take on the book or on its potential teen appeal.