Mon 6 May 2013
A wonderful book that is at once deeply philosophical and thoroughly enjoyable, while bringing the first half of the 20th century to vivid life.
For a book titled Life after Life, there certainly is an abundance of death in Kate Atkinson’s wonderful new novel. Given the setting – the book’s arc encompasses both World Wars – that is hardly surprising. Atkinson, however, takes her exploration of death a step further. She makes it omnipresent in a way that would have pleased the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger. Kierkegaard wrote that most people live their lives while studiously ignoring their impending death. That is to say, we know that we will someday die, but we treat our death as a future event with little bearing on the present. We are mistaken. Death is real, inevitable, and can come at any time. Kierkegaard was only halfway joking when he wrote that when accepting an invitation to a party, you should not say, “I shall certainly attend,” but rather, “I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend.”
If Kierkegaard had lived today and had written a novel (a lot of “ifs” I know, but bear with me), it might have looked something like Life after Life. Martin Heidegger – who shared Kierkegaard’s philosophy of death – wrote that “As soon as a man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.” And sure enough, the book’s heroine Ursula Todd has no sooner been born than she departs this world, her umbilical cord wrapped around her little neck. This is no spoiler. It happens within the first ten pages. As the story unfolds, Ursula dies, and dies, and dies. She drowns. She falls. She is crushed. She is shot. She asphyxiates. And each death starts a new life, a chance to do it over again, a chance to get it right.
The result, for me, was a rather novel experience in which I read in constant anticipation of death, the precise state of mind in which Kierkegaard and Heidegger insisted we should all live. The question constantly lurked: when will Urusula die? Rather than being morbid, this obsession with death adds an extra measure of poignancy to each telling of Ursula’s life. It also allows Atkinson to explore the contingency of life. As we go through cycle after cycle of Ursula’s life, we see how the smallest events can change the course of an entire existence. A chance encounter with one of her brother’s friends leads a young Ursula to a life of misery. A decision to take a walk saves a life. The gas on the stove flits out for a moment, and she dies. It stays on, and she lives another twenty years. Chance plays a role, as do the decisions of Ursula and the cast of interesting characters that surround her. There is no fate, only repetition.
Which is another of Kierkegaard’s favorite subjects. Indeed, I suspect that Atkinson has read her fair share of the Danish philosopher. Fortunately, her book is a more enjoyable read than anything Kierkegaard produced (which is not damning with faint praise, as I rather enjoy Kierkegaard). Normally the use of words like “fug”, “thrawn”, and “pulchritude” might be enough to turn me off, but Atkinson is a good enough writer to get away with such embellishments. And she brings the past to vivid life, particularly the Blitz. Some of the images she invokes – crawling though the ruins of an apartment building and finding oneself kneeling on the spongy remains of a baby caught in the explosion – will stick with me for some time, though I might rather forget them. And I was glad to see that Atkinson also takes us inside the German bomb shelters. For as horrible as the Blitz was, the bombing of Germany was much, much worse. More than 40,000 civilians were killed in England, while between 300,000 and 500,000 German civilians died in RAF bombings that did little to aid the Allied war effort, but which certainly exacted a grizzly revenge for the Blitz.
Life after Life does not have much in the way of traditional plot, nor could it, considering the frequent deaths of its heroine. It is a meditation on the nature of life and a character study, and fortunately, Atkinson has peopled it with a number of compelling characters. Ursula’s acerbic mother and kind father, her boorish older brother and sweet, clear-headed sister Pamela, her unorthodox aunt, her lovers, neighbors, and friends are all vividly portrayed. Indeed, the cast of characters is rich enough that the necessarily repetitive nature of the novel never becomes tedious. In addition, Atkinson does a wonderful job of continually tweaking the book’s formula in order to keep the reader interested. When a moment in her life starts to grow stale, the book moves on. Sometimes, I longed for Ursula to dies. Sometimes, I rooted for her to live.
In the end, Ursula embraces her mortality in a way that is a bit fantastical, but utterly satisfying. Kierkegaard felt that to truly live, we must accept that we could die at any time. By the end of Life after Life, it is safe to say that Ursula Todd has surely done so.