I have been a fan of Atkinson’s writing for many years, both of the more ‘literary’ books like ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ and of her excursions into crime fiction with Case Histories . I like her way with words and the dry, ironic humour. But I have to say I was disappointed in this book.
As with ‘Human Croquet’, she has experimented with the idea of time. It is a theme which has fascinated many writers. The idea that it might be possible to turn back time to a crucial moment and alter the course of events is one which JB Priestley played with in ‘Dangerous Corner’ and ‘Time and the Conways’ and Martin Amis reversed it completely in ‘Time’s Arrow’. Robert Frost touched on the idea of a casual decision that alters the course of a life in ‘The Road Not Taken’. But Atkinson has gone much further. Since the days of Albert Einstein, the idea that time is not a current flowing ever onwards has interested physicists and philosophers and there is a theory that there may be parallel universes in which the same event may occur simultaneously with different outcomes. It is this concept that informs ‘Life After Life’.
The protagonist, Ursula, experiences repeated reincarnations but they are simultaneous, not sequential. Each one ends with her death, by various means, but then time turns back, she chooses a different path, and her life continues. Beginning with a chapter in which she dies at birth she experiences death by drowning as a child; falls from a window; catches the deadly flu that killed so many after World War l; is raped, suffers an abortion, a miserable marriage and death at the hands of her brutal husband; avoids rape and goes on to become a senior civil servant with a lover in high circles. During the Second War she might be killed in a bombing raid, or be one of the rescuers; or she might have become a German citizen and a friend of Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun. In each incarnation she retains some sense of the previous life, a feeling of deja vue or a premonition of impending doom; and this leads her in one episode to organise her life deliberately in order to become one of Hitler’s circle, so that she can shoot him before he starts the war.
We all know how it feels to look back at a moment in our lives and wish we could recall an angry word or change a decision. Sometimes it is amusing to speculate about how different our lives might have been. But we know it is not possible. We choose our path and have to follow where it leads us. We expect the same to apply to our fictional heroes and heroines. It is seeing how they cope with the exigencies and traumas that their choice throws up that intrigues and excites us. If every time something goes wrong for them they can simply turn back the clock and put it right, the story loses all dramatic tension. I am afraid this was what happened for me with this novel. Each time I turned a page and found Ursula’s life beginning again I mentally sighed ‘Oh, here we go again!’ And as the variety of outcomes became a virtual blizzard towards the end of the book that changed to ‘Who cares, anyway?’
My verdict? An interesting experiment, but in the final analysis not a successful one.