When you pick up British writer Kate Atkinson’s popular 2013 novel “Life After Life,” you have to be willing to enter a new world of storytelling. As Atkinson casually says in interviews, it has a “high-concept” structure. One look at the table of contents will show you what that means. Her story of Ursula Todd is told in 30 chapters, many short and each one dated, which move us back and forth in time.
Once you accept that you are in the hands of a talented and imaginative author, you can relax and enjoy her irresistible writing. Simply said, Atkinson allows her heroine to live her life over and over again. At the opening, Ursula is born at home in the British countryside village of Fox Corner in February 1910, but the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck and because of a snowstorm the physician cannot be there to help. Sadly, she cannot take in a first breath. In her next birth on that same snowy night on that same date, there is a better outcome.
Each subsequent life allows her to live longer and longer, so Atkinson is able to take us through World War I, the Twenties and Thirties and eventually World War II. It also means Ursula dies of influenza, suicide and German bombing in London, for example. The deaths aren’t occasions for sadness, though. Just turn the page and Ursula will be following a new path. It’s fun to be reminded how just one small thing that occurs can take a life in a completely different direction.
Ursula’s family is appealing, and their personalities remain constant throughout while their fates do not. Her father, Hugh, is a banker who has a warm spot in his heart for Ursula, his “little bear.” Her mother, Sylvie, manages the home and her five children with varying degrees of attention and criticism. Sister Pamela is a confidante, but older brother Maurice is a nuisance and is sent off to boarding school early. Her kooky Aunt Izzie steps in to help Ursula life after life.
Some of the longer, later chapters are unforgettable. Ursula studies in Germany and joins a rescue team to clean up the streets after the Allied bombing raids. In another life she suffers through the Blitz in London. The drama and details of those two longer chapters are superb.
Dozens of editors have put “Life After Life” on their Best Books of 2013 lists. I would guess that in some part they are acknowledging the creative framework of the book, but this is also due to the appealing, witty and informative story that she tells. It’s up to us readers to decide if Ursula learns more with each new chance she is given.