“Everything Was Ephemeral, Yet Everything Was Eternal”: Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life”

life-after-life-coverIn the moments after completing Kate Atkinson’s often intense alternate history, Life After Life, I couldn’t help but compare it with Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls. I put this down to having recently reviewed the latter, but the longer Atkinson’s novel has sat, read but unreviewed, on my shelves, the more the comparator has seemed to me useful as a means of explaining what it it does so well.

That review of Beukes’s gory thriller appeared alongside a piece by Jesse Bullington that faithfully echoed the wall-to-wall praise of the novel which has appeared in the wake of a formidable PR campaign: “a work that does everything right, teasing the reader with potential paradoxes yet always restoring a consistent narrative, and one where the time travel element never overshadows the emotional core of the novel yet is essential to the plot.” My own review was far more equivocal, and has since been joined in its lonely dissent by D. Harlan Wilson in the LARB:

Obviously I wanted more from The Shining Girls — something, perhaps, that approached the artistic chi or aura of the shining girls themselves. But the novel is precisely what it wants to be: a creative recycling of old ideas and characters that will appeal to popular audiences on the page and on the screen. Given Beukes’s command of language and storytelling, it will certainly be among the best-written books on sale at Walmart.

The Shining Girls features a time-travelling serial killer who picks off women contributing to society above and beyond the restrictions imposed upon their sex; the reasonable argument is, one supposes, that violence against women transcends era. In practice, though, the book fumbles its central case: the individual women get short shrift, reducing the vividness of their particularity; the serial killer in question, rendered far more vividly than any of his victims bar the novel’s protagonist, can be read as the agent of his House, which enables his travels through time and seems to force him into them, too; and, though dexterously structured, the novel ultimately comes unstuck even at the point of its insistent denouement, a tried-and-tested final confrontation.

Life After Life, on the other hand, focuses squarely on Ursula, a woman born in 1910 to the kind of comfortably-off family familiar to us from DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Ian McEwan. It takes place across much of the twentieth century, taking in both World Wars, the Weimar Republic, and the sexual revolution; and in the course of its pages Ursula dies many times – at the hands of Spanish ‘flu, or of an abusive husband, or in the horror of the Blitz. After each death, she returns to the moment of her birth (in one life she is strangled within seconds by the umbilical cord), and begins to be aware of this endless reliving – resulting first in therapy, and then in an attempt to shape her own life, and then the world around her.

Written both with tenderness and an unflinching eye for grisly detail – Ursula’s murder is less cartoonish, but more horrifying, than anything in The Shining Girls, whilst in another life her ARP patrols are littered with body parts and dead babies – Life After Life succeeds rather wonderfully in evoking both the cosy verities of the Edwardian English novel, and exploding the form outwards. Like Beukes’s House, Atkinson’s recursive reincarnation is never explained – and yet, unlike the serial killing of The Shining Girls, the repeatedly truncated lives of Life After Life come to stand both for a good deal more than violent misogyny, and more robustly and completely for that, too.

“The toll of the dead had been her business during the war,” Ursula’s supervisor Miss Woolf reflects at one point, “the endless stream of figures that represented the blitzed and the bombed passed across her desk to be collated and recorded. They had seemed overwhelming, but the greater figures – the six million dead, the fifty million dead, the numberless infinites of souls – “were in a realm beyond comprehension.” [pg. 137]  Life After Life seeks to rehumanise those figures not by attempting to depict as many of those souls as possible, but by plumbing the infinities of a single soul. Ursula’s many lives, her unnecessary deaths and endlessly repeated mistakes frustrating a smaller number of fuller existences, come to stand for all of those snuffed out by war or violence or bigotry. Where Miss Woolf cannot comprehend the Blitz or the Holocaust, Atkinson’s readers come to understand Ursula.

Ursula’s own mother seeks to deny all this potential by forcing her into the stencils of womanhood supplied by the unjust society to which she belongs. “Perhaps you will never marry,” she sighs during a life in which Ursula embraces singledom, “as if Ursula’s life was as good as over.” [pg. 275]   Ursula’s fight for her individuality powers her better lives, those in which she does not succumb to alcoholism or undergo a backstreet abortion. But it comes at the cost of ‘respectability’, and her best life ends alone on a park bench, a moderately successful civil servant but somehow still incomplete. “I admire you, really,” says her sister, “Being your own woman. Not following the herd and so on. I just don’t want you to be hurt.” [pg. 244]  Ursula is too late for her mother’s Victorian values, too early for the liberation of the 1960s. (“What an old fuddy-duddy she sounded, she had become the person she always thought she would never be.” [pg. 429])   Just as she comes to stand for all the twentieth-century lives lost to war, then, she comes to stand for all the woman never quite allowed to be.

That Ursula’s best lives emerge from – huzzah! – the empowerment and emancipation of a solidly gentrified university education is the only slightly heavy note in an otherwise delicately played suite of  bittersweet brilliance. The ‘message’ never overtakes the ‘medium’, the grand theme always serving Ursula’s intimate plots rather than vice versa. Atkinson’s prose is supple yet probing, sensitive and yet defiantly robust. Even her happy endings – the assassination of Hitler, or the return of a doomed hero – are explicitly liminal, against the odds and unusual, like Ursula’s survival amongst limitless lives in which she and her family succumb again and again to the 1918 influenza pandemic. The balance and resonance of Life After Life is impressive: hit any part of it, and every segment sings.

Maybe the novel isn’t quite so “accessible and original” as the Women’s Prize judges obviously found May We Be Forgiven, a work rather less perfectly formed but more concious, perhaps, of its literary purpose. But if, in my gadfly judgement, The Shining Girls is a “schematic, occasionally melodramatic novel”, then Life After Life is that altogether better thing: a detailed and deep melodrama, both evocative and intelligent.

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6 thoughts on ““Everything Was Ephemeral, Yet Everything Was Eternal”: Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life”

    • Would be interested in your thoughts, should you find a space in which to publish them: I think there are problems with the novel, but I found its central conceits really interesting. I note that Adam Mars-Jones in the LRB liked them considerably less, but I thought he allowed too little for the idea that our frustration was part of Atkinson’s project. Your sanity check welcome.

  1. To report back: I did go to my local Waterstones, but discovered there that it’s only available in hardback, and rather venally i decided to wait until the paperback comes out.

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