What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
In British author Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Life after Life, Ursula Todd is born and dies. Ursula Todd is born and lives. And as the book progresses, the plot lines interweave and fold back on themselves as Ursula lives, and dies, in her many timelines. Some of those timelines are quite short, others quite lengthy and detailed. And through it all is the hulking shadow of Second World War and the London blitz.
Life After Life finds Atkinson exploring chance and fate, and how the smallest action or inaction by one person can profoundly affect the course of history, both personal and collective.
These are the decisions Ursula faces, but she doesn't know she is living multiple do-overs. Instead, she thinks she is suffering from a serious case of déjà vu. With each repeat, she faces the same choices, the same possibilities for mistakes. So she comes to rely more on her instincts, something Atkinson feels that we do not do much of in today’s society.
“We are still Stone Age people,” Atkinson says. “Our bodies are still Stone Age. Our brains probably still are. And I am sure if we lived a much closer life to nature, we would probably live on our instincts more.”
The reader observes as Ursula grows and finds herself. She remains the same person throughout the book, but she becomes tougher with each life.
“Those layers of experience somehow make her stronger, even when she is still prone to making those same mistakes, saying hello to that wrong person,” Atkinson says. “She is still growing in a different way to the way you and I would grow. She’s not on a journey; she’s on a different narrative.”
Atkinson set the story in Germany for some of her lives because she wanted to tell the other side of the Blitzkrieg. She says not as much is said about the pain and horror the Germans had to go through during that time, and Atkinson wanted to shed light on that side of the war.
In this way, Atkinson views Life After Life, as a way to bear witness. Those who lived through World War II are a shrinking number. By recreating and retelling the war through stories, Atkinson says she is able to help a new generation remember those who suffered.
Atkinson is the prize-winning author of six novels, including Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which won the Whitbread Award for Book of the Year. She lives in Edinburgh when she’s not on tour. She was in Milwaukee in April for an event.