Thursday, August 22, 2013

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

It is a truth universally acknowledged by science fiction writers that if time travel becomes possible, there are narrative problems that have to be resolved via reference to the "multiverse"--the idea that at every point where there is more than one possible action to be taken, there is a universe in which ALL possible actions are taken.

This is often explained as a fundamental principle of quantum physics, and I certainly can't prove it one way or another. But the possibility of alternative outcomes is like catnip to writers--as it would have to be. What would happen, one can easily imagine a writer thinking with fingers hovering over the keyboard, if instead of THIS happening, THAT happens instead?

We see it a lot in science fiction--the movie The Butterfly Effect, for example, or the classic Ray Bradbury story "The Sound of Thunder" depend on this idea. There are plenty of other examples--I am personally very fond of the way Terry Pratchett describes it as the "Trousers of Time." That the future travels down one leg or the other, depending on what choices are taken.

What is less popular is to take this science fiction trope, and convert it into literary fiction. But that is what Kate Atkinson does. To date, her Jackson Brodie novels have elevated crime fiction into something more demanding and genre-bending. Here, she takes the life story of Ursula Todd, and repeats it, showing all the different ways she could die, and then returning to the moment of her birth and replaying the story with different outcomes at critical moments.

So, in the beginning, Ursula's mother Sylvie goes into labor as a snowstorm hits, making the doctor and the midwife unavailable. During the birth, the umbilical cord gets wound around the baby's neck, and she dies immediately. In the next chapter, the doctor manages to get to the home before the snow, and saves the baby's life. She survives until about age five, when she climbs out an attic window to retrieve a doll her older brother has thrown out onto the roof, and then slips and falls to her death.

The book then returns to her birth, and reprises the attic scene, but Ursula makes a different choice--either she doesn't go to retrieve the doll (in one iteration), or else she hides her doll so her brother throws her sister's doll out the window instead.

These are not strict repetitions, but variations on a theme--every time we return to Ursula's birth, there are different conversations, different experiences reported. And, brilliantly, even when Ursula's life takes different paths, there are some similar experiences, some fundamental questions that arise over and over.

For example, in one terrible life path, Ursula's older brother Maurice--who nobody likes, not even his parents--brings home from friends from Oxford on Ursula's sixteenth birthday. The grossly physical American named Howie, forces a kiss on Ursula that she finds unpleasant and disturbing. Later, he traps her against the wall in the upper stairway and rapes her. She predictably becomes pregnant, and is such a naive that she cannot understand what has happened or why. She wonders whether there is something in her that Howie could see, something that she herself did not understand about herself, that made him believe that she deserved this treatment. (That is a paraphrase of Atkinson's beautiful writing--don't blame her for my awkwardness.)

Later, after the sad and miserable life that plays out following this rape, Ursula punches Howie when he tries to kiss her, and averts the rape. Her life moves forward, and as an independent woman in her late 30s, she wonders about how she has several love affairs, but never marries, and she repeats the thoughts that came to her at 16 in the earlier life--was there something in her that men could see that made her good enough for a mistress, but not a wife?

Or, twice she begins to self-medicate with alcohol, and wonders if it would be so bad to just die--the first time in her early 20s as she is stuck in a boring shorthand course, the second time after she has retired in her late 50s from a job in the Home Office. One life is much more bleak and appalling than the other, but in both, she remains the same character with the same ideas and thoughts.

I greatly admire Atkinson's writing--I've read everything of hers from Case Histories on--but I can't say I loved this book. To be fair, I listened to it as an Audible.com book, read by Fenella Woolgar, who I have liked as an actress since I saw her in Bright Young Things. Perhaps it was the narration rather than the writing, but the whole book took so very long for anything to happen. I found Ursula's infancy to be mostly boring, frankly, and so I started to be in the uncomfortable position of rooting for her to just go ahead and die already so something would happen!

Not attractive of me, I know.

I struggled through the first several years, and then things got better. Perhaps I am just bored with the English pastoral scene setting, when I really wanted Ursula to have some relationships and character development. I did like her older sister Pamela and the way they interacted in all the various lives, and even in their childhood, Pamela and Ursula were interesting. Unfortunately, the book felt like it took months to describe the specifics of Ursula's wooden doll for example, and the specifics of Edwardian housekeeping just bored me.

Things got much livelier once Howie showed up, and the sequelae of that horrible experience were enraging. Poor Ursula had no idea what had happened to her, and had no idea that she could become pregnant. When it became obvious, her mother became terribly hateful about it, and poor Ursula didn't understand enough to defend herself. She ended up with an illegal abortion, which she also didn't understand. In a heartbreaking scene, she asked if the baby had been adopted by a nice couple--because she was completely ignorant about the entire process. (Ignorant= innocent in this time period I guess.)

She ended up in a terrible marriage with a violent and deceiving man who ended up killing her in a terrible scene of domestic violence. And in every scene, I was emotionally involved, rooting for Ursula to escape somehow.

Then there what felt like the bulk of the novel--Ursula's years in London during the Blitz. She served as a warden, whose job was to travel to bombed out buildings and rescue the living and tally the dead. This is a moving literary portrait of an important period of British history, but that's not really the novel I thought I had signed up for. So I got impatient. Her various lovers weren't particularly distinguishable from each other, nor were they terribly charming. There were perhaps too many characters, all of whom died in various iterations of war damage, none of whom I found I had much investment in--and neither did Ursula, particularly.

Maybe this was the problem for me--that the character of Ursula wasn't really visible or vivid, and the rest of the many (many many MANY) characters were even less developed. For example--the Todd family has five children: Maurice, Pamela, Ursula, Teddy and Jimmy, along with the parents (Sylvie and Hugh), the cook and maid, their husbands and sons, and an every rotating roster of family dogs.. Jimmy doesn't make any impact at all. and we are told that Teddy is everyone's favorite, but it's not clear why. In fact, if Teddy has any personality other than ownership of a train set, I don't remember it. Maurice is unlikeable, but it's not clear why he is any worse than anybody else--and I have to say that makes me wonder about Sylvie and Hugh. What kind of parents raise a child that they don't like?

Things get worse, as Maurice and Pamela marry and have children--Pamela ends up with five kids herself, and they are indistinguishable too. With all the jumping around in time, the reader has to keep up with so many dates, so many neighbors, so many co-workers and bomb shelter co-habitants, that it just gets hard to care about much of anybody.

This book raises an ontological question about its own existence. Is Atkinson trying to make a point about the nature of fiction? About the nature of religious belief? About the circumscribed choices available to women in the middle of the last century--that no matter how many times Ursula lives her life, she cannot avoid the damned shorthand secretarial course, because women really didn't have that many choices?

Each time Ursula dies, she simply returns to being born--there is no afterlife, no religious meaning. It's not really reincarnation, because she doesn't move through time, she just goes back to her own beginning. Death is cold and black, and then she is born on a cold, snowy night. There is a hint toward the very end of the book that other people also experience this serial living--in the last iteration of her birth story, Sylvie pulls out a pair of surgical scissors and cuts the strangling cord herself, saying "Practice makes perfect." I think Sylvie--and possibly others--have this same cyclical experience of life. Nancy Shawcross (one of the far too many Shawcross children who also mostly make no impression) is molested and killed by a limping tramp at about age 10--but in several iterations, Ursula manages to save her, so obviously she experiences alternative time lines too. We never know if she has the deja vu/precognition experiences Ursula has.

It's a great experiment in plot and genre bending, and it's worth reading. For me, it is fatally flawed because the characters are not engaging enough to make the slog through the period detail worthwhile. Downton Abbey is less fetishistic about the details of Edwardian life (and that's saying something!) while also keeping the story moving.

Two final notes. It appears that this book has been nominated for the Women's Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) alongside Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies--another book rife with period detail, but livelier in it's characterizations. In the end, neither one won--A. M. Holmes won for May We Be Forgiven, which was a complete surprise to me as I hadn't even heard of that book or that the award had been given already.

Also--LIfe After Life is being developed as a movie. I will watch that with interest to see what happens.

4 comments:

Cleo Rogers said...

Loved the idea of the book. The backwards and forwards through time was cleverly managed.Very well written . Did not disappoint.
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Hyacinth Marius said...

Wonderful writing. It's a complicated book; you have to watch the dates she gives you carefully as she goes back and forth in time, but it's worth the slight confusion to read about so many roads not taken.
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Micaella Lopez said...

One of those books you remember for a long time! As someone who reads hundreds of books a year, I love finding one that stands out among them. This is one of the best I have read this year. Fascinating premise, that you get many chances to get things right in life; you just have to recognize and take them.
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Kay said...

I certainly agree with the assessment that Life After Life is long and tedious in parts, yet it all revolves around an interesting premise. I often thought that the theme was about writing, the author's choices-- the power to delete and begin again. I admit to scanning through the blitz. There was too much to manage at times, and I found myself wishing for several timelines to keep each one straight. However, reading required attention to identify those pivotal moments when choices, large or small, determine so much, life or death, in this case and whose life or death. It is existential and tries to explain our responsibility as human beings. Are there really pivotal moments or is every moment so pivotal? The book gives us an alternative theory of mind (wonderful!). Two moments interest me most. Towards the end, Nancy Shawcross's death in childhood communicates without saying because it indexes so much in the reader's mind. Then it hits Ursula: "Something was riven, broken, a lightening fork cutting open a swollen sky" (504). The breakage says that some order of history is whole, and I think in the end it is something like our known narratives that we wish for. The only way out of that riven universe is time travel and political assassination. Then in the next iteration, Teddy and Nancy are spared and reunited. The reader imagines that Ursula managed to save them both and did not end the war before it began. What did she sacrifice, and did she have enough "caritas" (Dr. Kellet 507)? The reader has to write in that story in her own mind with the materials, the theory of mind, and the wisdom that Atkinson has provided. It leaves us knowing ourselves better and respecting literature more. Good work!