What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay ScienceAt one point in Kate Atkinson's marvelously embroidered novel, main character Ursula Todd ponders reincarnation and decides that she'd like to come back as a tree. A great tree swaying in the breeze. And of course, she is—a tree whose trunk is rooted in in the early hours of a snowy day in 1910, whose branches reach out through choices and coincidence, and whose leaves brush a future that spreads in all directions.
Life After Life is based around an idea that's older than the classic idea of reincarnation, an idea known as "eternal return," in which we all play out our lives again, and again, and again in an never-ending loop. However, unlike the traditional view of this ancient idea, Usula's life doesn't proceed in eternal lockstep. She's swayed by the breezes both of external forces and, increasingly, of her own conscious decisions, turning each iteration of her life into a new edition that can follow closely along an established branch, or dart off wildly in a new direction.
At first this looping narrative, filled with restarts, reworkings, do-overs and flashbacks, can seem something of a gimmick, but only follow Ursula far enough to get through her childhood and it becomes it's own thing. A fractal novel. A biography of a quantum life created as much from variation as theme. Give it far enough, and it reveals itself for what it really is: a masterwork.
What might seem from casual description to be a difficult read is turned into a joy by Atkinson's skill with characters. Everyone — everyone — in this decade-spanning saga is given a character utterly distinctive and utterly believable. That's an admirable feat on it's own, but what raises it to an award-worthy performance is how each of these characters is given their own chance to grow and develop. Ursula's mother, Sylvie, becomes both more possessed, but also more bitter. Her father, Hugh, grows increasingly more generous and less concerned with propriety. Ursula becomes more and more like both of them, impossible as that seems. Her siblings, Aunt Izzy, Bridget, Mrs. Glover, Fred Smith the butcher's boy turned train engineer turned fire fighter in the midst of a burning London... all of them drawn out with both an economy and with a refusal to fall to stereotype. We see these characters over a span of forty years, not just once but multiple times, and see them respond when life's coin flip provides good fortune, and when it strikes as hard as the death of a child. We see dozens of variations, but never doubt their core.
The book is also buoyed by humor. Sylvie's education, which is mostly limited to being exceptionally well-read, allows her to continuously drop little verbal bombshells and is good for a quote on any occassion. Footloose Izzy never met a stiff shirt that didn't need poking. Ursula's internal thoughts are rarely as dry as her solid, "needs must" demeanor. Even the guileless maid Bridget and stalwart sister Pamela are good for a verbal elbow now and then, especially when aimed at eldest-brother Maurice, who remains a sot in every life.
The many lives of Ursula, as presented to the reader, include those that end tragically soon after her birth, and those that stretch into a comfortable retirement. We see her in awful circumstances, married to a bulling, abusive husband or freezing and hungry in post-war scarcity. The level of pain to which she is subjected in the worst of these, and the relative passivity of the character in some early situations, make both the reader (and Ursula) wish for "darkness to fall" so that things can begin again with a less bitter outcome.
Both the humor and the characters come into their own as the novel plunges into the heart of Ursula's adulthood and the world plunges into war. It's really in the war narrative, those years where Ursula endures tragedy on every scale, where the book rises into rarified air in it's description of lives lived against bloody sacrifice and staggering acts of everyday heroism. As it does in other parts of the book, Ursula's life here revisits branching points and banks and weaves through a sea of choices. Some of these (Argyle Road) combine moments both banal and horrible. So horrible that it may make you rethink the experience of those who lived through World War II. How did the "greatest generation" keep themselves from simply becoming a generation gone screaming mad? Lots of gumption and gallons of hot tea.
Ursula seems unique at first, not because her life is repeating, but because more than anyone else, she seems aware of this repetition and is able to put her foreknowledge to use, even when it is mostly limited to moments of foreboding. However, as the novel progresses, even this distinction is... less distinct. It's clear that at least some of the other characters are bearing with them experiences and thoughts that overlap from one existence to the next. Even the previously unexplained changes in some of their outlooks become more understandable if they are also suffering pangs over not just what has happened, but what is coming.
The genius of the novel is such that it can deal with that hoariest of time travel chestnuts -- let's kill Hitler! -- not just once, but twice, and come off with that event only informing the structure of the book and the essential nature of Ursula's ever-ending but eternal life.
In the end, despite all that we've seen, it's clear that this is only a fragment; a few twigs on that vast tree. Who is the man Ursula sees with Sylvie when she is thirteen? What is Nancy Shawcross' mysterious job during the war, and is it related to the man who tries to hand Ursula a business card on the train? What did Anne, the girl from the air department, want to tell her? Can poor Angela be saved? We don't know. Not in this life, anyway. Maybe somewhere out there is another version of this book, one that answers these questions.
On every level -- the sharply sketched characters, humor both biting and gentle, an amazing eye for historical detail, the deft handling of a narrative that is anything but linear -- this is a book that, like it's main character, will live on.
And did I mention it was simply beautifully written? Next time, I'll start with that.