Looking at the title, I presumed that this was going to be a book about the afterlife, something like The Lovely Bones, but in fact its meaning is one life after another. This book doesn’t treat death as final: its protagonist, Ursula Todd, dies when she is born in 1910 with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Then in the next chapter and the next life she gets another chance: the family doctor who originally couldn’t be present because of heavy snowfall makes it to her birth, and cuts the cord in time. A few chapters later, five-year-old Ursula and her sister Pamela drown at sea, then in another life they get rescued by a stranger who happens to be nearby. A year later she falls to her death out of the window while trying to rescue a favourite doll, then she is stopped by the kitchen maid before she climbs the windowsill and lives on.
At that point, while enjoying the book, I thought to myself, ok is this going to be like playing a video game where you die and fail a level, then come back and pass the level, then fail the next level and so on? Because that’s going to get old real quick and this is a thick book. But the novel, thank god, was much more inventive than this. The early start-and-stop-and-start narrative is about the more straightforward perils of childhood, but as she grows up and has more autonomy over her choices and actions, Ursula’s many fates take many, wildly different routes. In one life, a kiss from a visiting American student ends with an abusive marriage, in another, a timely slap prevents a disaster. Romance that happens in one life takes another trajectory in the other, and same people and places play different roles in different chapters. Ursula herself becomes vaguely aware of her own alternate past lives, experiencing strange feelings of déjà vu and inexplicable dread, and a visit to a psychiatrist touches on the nature of time and reincarnation, handily visualised as a snake with a tail in its mouth.
Merely explaining the concept of the novel however does no justice to Atkinson’s empathetic, humorous and vivid writing, which brings to life complex family dynamics and life in England between and including the two world wars. Ursula’s family is comfortably wealthy and live just beyond the north London, in a leafy area not yet swallowed by the encroaching suburbs. While Ursula herself never quite gels into a fully realised character, probably because of her ever-changing life course, the novel has a rich supporting cast, of which Ursula’s snobbish and caustic mother Sylvie and erratic, free-spirited aunt Izzie stand out the most. The details of wartime London and its blitz horrors are harrowing and authentic, though the book feels less convincing when it travels over to the continent in a life where Ursula ends her days in the 1945 Berlin instead. Atkinson knows her England through and through, Germany on the other hand feels a lot more sketchy.
If I continued the earlier video game comparison, World War II is the unbeatable big boss of Ursula’s life; even when she makes out of it alive the tragedies it visits on her family leave it mangled forever. In the opening chapter set in the 1930s Germany, Ursula dies while trying to assassinate Hitler, and the closest the novel gets to “what it all means” is the implication that Ursula’s ultimate goal is preventing the war from happening. But the book remains rather vague on this account; there’s even an intriguing remark by one of the characters that perhaps a great evil happens in order to prevent an even greater evil (this in fact made me half-expect a version of Ursula’s life where Hitler dies but the future turns out to be even worse than WWII, but I guess this would be getting too much into science fiction turf). Despite this lack of clear resolution, this is a remarkable, rich, haunting book that I’d probably want to re-read down the track.