“What if this present were the world’s last night?” – A discussion of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (with a Downton Abbey digression)
“The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.” This is the anguished cry of Bridget, the Irish maid. But Sylvie Todd, the mother, struggles against this outcome. Struggles so vehemently that she manages to outwit Death. And so the infant, christened Ursula, lives. At least, for the time being.
In fact, Ursula is fated to make her way through several different lives. To an extent, these varied trajectories exemplify England’s agonized, war torn progress through the first half of the twentieth century. Yet in another sense, Ursula’s multiple life scenarios are uniquely hers. They are the result of the actions of others as they impinge on her, the circumstances in which she finds herself at a given moment, and the operations of pure chance. Life After Life is the story of individual fate interwoven with the fates of family members, of the country, of a world seemingly gone mad at one moment, entirely sane the next. Throughout all of this seemingly arbitrary chaos – chaos punctuated by calm verging on inertia – Ursula is forced, again and again, to make fateful choices, some of them hurriedly and based on scant evidence: “For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…”
Rita began this discussion (by AAUW Readers) with a question: Who liked the book? Who did not? A show of hands revealed that the group was evenly divided. Oh, good, thought I. This should be lively! And so it proved to be.
Connie spoke on behalf of the dissenters. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I believe she mentioned that she dreaded having to pick up the book in order to read further. I volunteered to speak on behalf of those who had positive feelings about the novel. First of all, I felt it necessary to state that I’d listened to it, as opposed to reading it. The recorded book, narrated by Fenella Woolgar, is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter.
I’d decided to begin by listening rather than reading Life After Life because of its length – just under six hundred pages in the hardback edition – and the fact that from what I’d read about it, I didn’t expect to like it. I’m a fan of the linear narrative. I like to say that if it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, et. al., it’s good enough for me.
In fact, I did find the opening sections confusing and rather off putting. The start and stop nature of the storytelling was initially exasperating. But the novel gradually took hold for me. I couldn’t wait to get back into the car – my sole venue for listening to audiobooks – and return to the many lives of Ursula Beresford Todd. (Someone in the discussion group commented that Life After Life was like five or six books in one book.)
As sometimes occurs in discussions where the participants begin by differing sharply, we drew together, at least to a degree, as our talk went forward. A section of the novel in which Ursula is living in Germany in the 1930s and becomes friendly with the Nazi elite, including Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, was judged to be the least convincing of the alternate histories – a bridge too far, as it were. (Although I shall never forget Ursula rushing to the British Embassy, desperate to get out of the country, only to find the facility shut up and deserted. I felt a strong empathetic stab of panic at her plight.)
A fairly lengthy section of the novel takes place in London at the time of the Second World War. Through Ursula’s experience in the Home Guard during the Blitz, the full awfulness of living under perpetual bombardment becomes all too real. The suffering, the terrible losses, were limned in dispassionate and compelling prose. It seemed to go on forever yet was totally absorbing. Pretty much everyone thought that this was the mot powerful part of the novel. (I described these scenes to a friend and fellow book lover at a Christmas luncheon. She went home and sent me, as a gift, this Kindle e-book: . I look forward to reading it. Thanks, Kay!)
The most tantalizing question concerned the structure of Life After Life. Was Ursula conscious of the different paths her life might take? Was she, in fact, deliberately creating and living these alternating scenarios? Or was she solely the instrument of the author’s invention, fated by the imagination of one Kate Atkinson to follow these multiple, mutually exclusive paths through life?
Atkinson’s novel is enriched by many quotations from the great poets. The line quoted in the title of this post is from one of the Holy Sonnets by John Donne. (For the complete poem, click here.) The opening lines of Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes” also appear in the novel. And, of course, Shakespeare: “Golden lads and girls all must, / as chimney-sweepers, come to dust….” (from Cymbeline). And as I’ve mentioned, Kate Atkinson’s own prose is wonderful:
A tiny hare dangled from the hood of the carriage, twirling around, the sun glinting off its silver skin. The hare sat upright in a little basket and had once adorned the top of the infant Sylvie’s rattle, the rattle itself, like Sylvie’s childhood, long since gone.
Bare branches, buds, leaves— the world as she knew it came and went before Ursula’s eyes. She observed the turn of seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mold and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them— sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice, rain more often than she would have liked. (There was sometimes a tardiness to rescuing her from the elements.)
Once there had even been the stars and a rising moon— astonishing and terrifying in equal measure— when she had been forgotten one autumn evening. Bridget was castigated. The pram was outside, whatever the weather, for Sylvie had inherited a fixation with fresh air from her own mother, Lottie, who when younger had spent some time in a Swiss sanatorium, spending her days wrapped in a rug, sitting on an outdoor terrace, gazing passively at snowy Alpine peaks.
One of the downsides of listening to a book as opposed to reading the printed page (or the downloaded text) is that you cannot mark favorite or important passages. So I have in fact downloaded Life After Life, and may also purchase the soft cover edition. I feel a strong need to revisit this extraordinary novel, and hopefully to write about it again.
An especially delightful moment occurred when someone – was it you, Phyllis? – plaintively asked if we could discuss Downton Abbey for just a short while. The two-hour premiere of Season Four of this British blockbuster had just aired, and people had questions to ask and opinions to express. Well, of course we did! This was a fun diversion; among other things, we cleared up the issue of who that insufferable nanny was calling a “half breed.”
In closing, I’d like to express my admiration for the intellectual rigor that characterized this discussion. Yes I do mean that – Downton Abbey and all! It took me back to the heady days of my favorite college classes. Well done, Readers!