Life After Life
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
NOT me frantically scraping together this review I’ve been plotting for the last several years so I can actually post it on Ursula’s birthday. My crastination skills are so sharp that I finally decided to go pro. :’D I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long, because this is one of my non-negotiable all-time favorite books, and I would absolutely take it with me to a deserted island, short-list it for the Rescue First In Case Of Fire Award, and force my friends to read it. The list goes on. (With all that being said: I feel somewhat obligated to note that the characters are, by and large, the prototypical products of a white middle-class English family in the early- to mid-1900s, and it really shows. Though this is absolutely a case of the characters being intentionally problematic rather than the book itself being unintentionally problematic, the outdated attitudes and terminology are difficult to read without extensive eye-rolling, so if that’s going to ruin the book for you, give this one a miss.)
Life After Life relates the cyclic, labyrinthine life of Ursula Beresford Todd, an English woman cursed – or blessed, depending upon your viewpoint – with unending life. She dies very easily, but after every death is born into the next cycle, which always begins on February 11, 1910. As she cycles through her many lives, she begins to realize that everything she’s lived through builds into a far larger picture than she could ever have imagined, and finally figures out that she can use her relative immortality to assassinate Hitler before he can kick off the Second World War. Yes, it sounds hokey, but bear with me. Though details change from life to life – some small, some more major – Ursula is always born in Fox Corner, a country manor belonging to Hugh and Sylvie Todd. (Possible play on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, particularly given that Sylvie appears to suffer from depression? Discuss.) She has two older siblings, Maurice and Pamela, and will become a big sister in her turn with the births of Edward (“Teddy”) and Jimmy. The children are predominantly supervised by the cook, Mrs. Glover, and the maid, Bridget, who is perpetually unlucky in love. Hugh always leaves his family for several years in order to fight in the First World War, and his youngest sister, Izzie, always becomes a celebrated children’s author with a series of books whose protagonist is loosely inspired by Teddy.
Aside from some minor aberrations, none of the rest of the family is capable of altering the general paths of their lives or even of remembering their previous lives, but Ursula, who regularly does both, learns over time to either avoid or prevent the events that have killed her and/or her loved ones in the past. In one life, she is raped by Howie, one of Maurice’s school friends, which puts her into a downward spiral that ends with her husband Derek beating her to death; in the life immediately after Derek, she punches Howie before he can get anywhere near her. In yet another life, she marries a German man and has a child with him, and even spends some time as the guest of Hitler and Eva Braun just before the start of the war. She witnesses the war from both England and Germany, and over time develops a strategy to survive the Blitz. The survival strategies she develops in one life automatically carry over into the next, enabling her to live longer and longer, and she rolls along as best she can until the abrupt convergence of all her past lives drives her into a tremendous meltdown. Realizing that she is now too far down a certain path to assassinate Hitler, she commits suicide, knowing she will be reborn, and devotes her next life to single-mindedly preparing herself for her mission. In the life just after her assassination attempt, she survives the war and is reunited with Teddy, who was previously thought to have been killed in action, and after all that she is reborn as always, presumably to do it all over again.
There’s a lot to unpack here – the book is 529 pages, because it takes Ursula a while to get her shit together – but the story, though incredibly multifaceted, never gets blurry or confusing. While I love the writing in general, I wish it were just a teensy bit better, as Atkinson’s language gets repetitive fast (“puzzled” and “laughed” seem to be her favorite verbs to use in place of “said”); however, this is a minor irritant, and overall the narrative style is beautiful and engaging. And, since I spend so much time complaining about the romances I find in other books, I thought it was worth taking a moment to appreciate the complete lack of romantic drama in this book. There are romantic entanglements and a couple of abusive marriage arcs, which I consider a category apart from romance-related drama because they are not romantic at all, but they never become the focus of the overarching story. (About Ursula’s second marriage: I said what I said. Don’t fucking come for me if you happen to like Jürgen, because he seemed all right at first but then he turned out to be a creep too and removing your spouse’s ability to leave the country does, in fact, qualify as abuse, and I will die on this hill. I’m glad Ursula only marries him once.)
Yet much as I love this book, it left me with a lot of questions. The foremost of these questions: How exactly does the whole birth-rebirth thing work? Do the surviving Todds carry on as they would have in Ursula’s other lives, or do they all start over again? Is there a multitude of parallel Todd families out in the universe somewhere, living their lives while Ursula’s continually restarts? Does she have to keep going and going until she succeeds in her mission, or does she have to keep carrying out that mission over and over again while the world itself restarts and restarts? Every other review I’ve seen has stated that she fails in her first attempt to assassinate Hitler because she is shot by his guards, to which I say she had the gun pointed at his heart and the narrative explicitly states that she pulled the trigger, how the fuck did she miss. I’m not sure I should be taking those other reviews at face value because that seems a bit far-fetched, even in a book about time travel. But if we accept this as the literal truth, does that mean that she never succeeds? If this is the case, and if Ursula is trapped in an endless cycle of trying but failing to carry out her mission, what is the point of all these lives? (This line of questioning makes me very unhappy because it also makes me start questioning the purpose of the entire book, so I usually don’t pursue it too far. All the same, it bugs me.)
To be completely fair, I don’t really expect that Atkinson has answers to any of these questions. There’s no world-building, at least as far as the time loop goes, and that wasn’t the point of the book anyway. In an afterword, Atkinson states that the book is about “being English” – that is, about the experience of being English, as well as how the English view themselves in their own imaginations – which does make sense, even to me as an American who has never been to the U.K. Of course, Atkinson also says long passages crammed with historical minutiae are unpleasant to read but has since gone on to write about WWII aircraft in mind-numbing detail in the excruciatingly painful A God in Ruins, so maybe take what she says with a grain of salt.
While I cannot deny that Life After Life suffers from some of the rambling that made its companion novel unbearable, even if that rambling is less technical – Ursula has an irritating habit of drifting into lengthy and somewhat disorienting flashbacks in the middle of a scene, which is part of the reason the Blitz section really drags – I have to admit that my love for her story largely stems from the smallest details of her day-to-day life. It’s a lifestyle vlog on paper. I love reading about her childhood (you know, when she actually survives it), her daily life as an office worker in London when it’s not being bombed, the flats she lives in, her visits to Fox Corner as an adult, even just the books she reads and the languages she studies life after life. The endless loop of her lives gives structure to the book, but, even though it was the first thing that drew me into her world, it isn’t the reason I keep coming back. I am, at base, an unapologetic lifestyle content stan. Even if this kind of thing seems slow to other people, I could read about Ursula’s life all day. There is just something so inherently comforting about an everyday character who loves to read.
And, at the end of the day, the time travel component doesn’t have to make sense. This isn’t a sci-fi thriller, where every detail has to be just so. It’s a book about family and war and life in England, and it just happens to include an unexplained rebirth loop, added in service to one central question: What if Hitler had been prevented from coming to power? Either you accept that premise, or you don’t. I have accepted it and accepted it, and this review is making me want to read the book again, so no doubt I’ll accept it a third time. It doesn’t have to be clearly explicable, either through science or magic or even a bizarre act of God. It just is, and it’s wonderful.