Life After Life By Kate Atkinson, Random House, $32.95.
Pursuing the many avenues of what could have happened if one moment in time had turned out differently is not unique — think Groundhog Day, Sliding Doors — but dramatising the notion with quite the intriguing multi-layered detail and myriad mind-bending permutations that award-winning author Kate Atkinson does in this electric novel … that is very special indeed.
Life After Life is an extraordinary work with descriptions so tangible and vivid you feel as if you’re drifting through the scenes of a film, complete with the director hollering “let’s do that one more time”, as we are taken back to the start — or a few stations on from the start — and given a different resolution.
Ursula Todd is the common thread, born on February 11, 1910, on an icy cold night in Fox Corner, a sleepy hollow house in a verdant if slightly scruffy corner of England that isn’t quite as cosy as its initial painting suggests.
Like the ice forming outside, covered in a muffling coat of snow, there’s something suitably slippery about the narrative, leaving the reader on uncertain ground, unsure whether the action that seems so real is actually happening.
And as the course of Ursula’s life is punctuated by incidents that could end it completely — or at least alter its course dramatically — we learn more and more about this prickly but decidedly engaging protagonist and the many characters that fill her world.
In one incarnation, Ursula is hanging out with Eva Braun in the Berghof, Hitler’s decadent base in the Bavarian Alps; in another she is assassinating Hitler; in another haunting episode, she is fearlessly picking through dismembered bodies in Blitz-torn London, searching for survivors; in another, she is heading for a back-street abortion; another trapped in a brutish marriage … The paths are endless, but each so affecting that we long to keep this character alive and moving forward.
As the end of the novel draws closer, I found myself craving not for a final curtain but yet more scenarios, so I could cling on to the vitality of Ursula’s world just a little bit longer.
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