These days it’s all about the gimmick. Well, maybe not all, but if you want to get by in the brutally competitive world of the modern novel, it has to be something more than a plot, a character or even a bloody good twist. It has to be the gimmick. Something that could interest a bored teenager on a random city bus.
For her new novel, Life After Life, Kate Atkinson went for something very special – if not necessarily original: we get to experience the life of one Ursula Todd or, to be more precise, we get to experience the lives of Ursula Todd. A sensible alternate title would be Life After Life After Life After Life (etc.). The gimmick is that it’s not a straightforward line of events, Kate’s idea being that a life is basically just a bunch of big and small what-ifs, like what if that boy kissed Ursula against her will or what if Ursula slapped him or what if Ursula let him kiss her. It’s just one tiny episode on Ursula’s 16th birthday, behind the shrubbery, and the list of possible futures resulting from it is really quite endless – every single one making Ursula an even more complex character than she already is (there’s a bit of magic here, like foreseeing future and experiencing strong deja-vu’s). Indeed, this book is like the ending of French Lieutenant’s Woman gone totally, clinically mad.
It doesn’t always work, and a good idea used can on occasion become a good idea abused (the whole thing does, inevitably, turn into a bit of a mess towards the second half), but when it does work – it makes Life After Life a brave, compelling, entertaining novel that is not afraid to go – in a matter of a few pages – from a rural mansion called Fox Corner (a piece of idyllic Britain that belongs to Ursula’s parents) to the hysteria of Hitler’s Germany to disturbing pictures of bombed babies during the Blitz in this never-ending loop of lives.
Fine writing all around, and it was the sheer punch-like brilliance of the novel’s first page, which has to be read and reread, that proved to be so convincing. (To say nothing of the actual scene: after all, it’s not often that you get to read of an apparently successful assassination of Adolf Hitler in 1930.) The family life in Fox Corner is described with a sharp female eye for amusing details. Plus, humour and warmth are to be found in old-fashioned but irresistible lines like “Butter was plastered on to the roll with no regard for the hard labour of the cow”. Then, in a freewheeling postmodernist spree, it all gets rather Dickensian in the part where Ursula marries a young Casaubon from London called Derek. Quite an eclectic ride, then, even if that can be forgiven in a novel that spans so many decades and thrice as many lives.
Life After Life is not a particularly long novel, but it is one of those where by the end of it you feel you’ve aged together with the main character. It’s a good feeling, certainly rather reassuring, because maybe if that first chapter wasn’t convincing and you threw the book away or maybe put it back on the shelf, something undesirable or even irreparable could have happened. Or darkness would have fallen, as Kate Atkinson has it so often in this excellent novel that is a little ridiculous but mostly fantastic.