Title: Life After Life
Rating: 4 Stars
The novel has an interesting concept. The main character is Ursula Todd. She has many lives. First, the doctor gets delayed in a snow storm and she dies while being born. Then, in the next section, the doctor arrives in the nick of time to save her. Later, she gets swept out to sea and is drowned. Even later, someone sees her struggling in the water and goes out to save her.
This goes through multiple iterations. She dies several different times because the family maid, Bridget, goes out to celebrate the WWI armistice, and while there contracts Spanish Influenza, comes home, and infects her.
Over time, she gets some distant consciousness of these previous lives and tries to alter her course. For instance, during the armistice celebration, she tries several schemes, only vaguely aware that she’s doing it, to stop Bridget from attending. She finally resorts to pushing Bridget down a flight of stairs, breaking her arm, to break the cycle.
She’s looked upon as a troubled child (for understandable reasons) and is sent off to counseling. Her mother explains that Ursula is constantly experiencing deja vu. The doctor, a student of Eastern thought, introduces Ursula to the concept of reincarnation and multiple life experiences.
She later grows to adulthood. In one particular brutal life, she is raped, is abused, and ultimately marries a man who beats her to death.
In other lives, she makes it to WWII, where she directly experiences the London Blitz, dying in multiple lives. In one life, she ends up in Germany and commits suicide (along with her young daughter) as the Soviets are coming.
Ultimately, she decides to sacrifice herself to kill Hitler before he rises to power.
All of this is interesting reading. In particular, Atkinson’s telling of the London Blitz is harrowing and makes you wonder once again what lengths of pain and suffering humanity is willing to inflict upon one another and how much a person can stand.
It also brings up interesting questions. A key question is nature vs nurture. How much of our personality is core to ourselves vs formed by our experiences? In the life where she is murdered by her husband, she’s a mousey little thing that hates herself and does not stand up for herself. In another life, she’s a rock when she’s part of the London defense, launching herself heroically to save people buried under rubble and is almost callous as she gets inured to death and suffering.
However, some characters do not fundamentally change at all regardless of the path that her life takes. Her mother, Sylvie, is always detached and bitter. Her sister, Pamela, is always warm and loving. Her aunt, Izzie, is always flamboyant, careless, yet supportive in times of crisis. Does this imply that these characters do not fundamentally change or that there is nothing that Ursula can do to affect them?
Even as she begins to develop a realization of her previous lives, she still does not have complete agency. Fate always plays a role. There is a trampish looking character that rapes and kills a couple of young girls. She just narrowly escapes him a couple of times; she thwarts him a couple of times, but he always exists and is never caught.
In a similar vein, some things seem fated to always occur (things that are truly outside of her control). For example, the apartment where she lives is always bombed. Sometimes she manages to escape it, sometimes she doesn’t live there but still inadvertently arrives there and gets killed, and sometimes she sees it after the bombing, but the building is always bombed. This goes again to the argument that she does not have complete agency.
The one exception is this is the life where she kills Hitler. We do not know what happens then because she is immediately killed. Is WWII avoided? Does this avoid the Cold War?
What’s not clear is if she ever escapes her loop. From hints dropped in the book, it appears that she has had many more lives than the ones that are listed in the novel. In the last version, WWII has still occurred but her brother Teddy, who has died in every other version, is alive. Does that mean that she is done? Is that what counts as a happy ending (ignoring the 50 million other people who died? Is that the last life? Is that the most personally satisfying life? Is she doomed to relive her life over and over again?
If so, are we as well, and we just don’t know it?