Library Director’s NotebookMarch, 2015A character in Kate Atkinson’s book Life After Life asks “What...

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 12:19pm -- KChin

Library Director’s Notebook

March, 2015

A character in Kate Atkinson’s book Life After Life asks “What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

Not necessarily, at least not if you are Ursula Todd, born, again and again, during a snowstorm in the Winter of 1910, sometimes dying at birth, sometimes surviving into early childhood, sometimes making it all the way to adulthood and the Blitz of London.

How do you write a novel that keeps beginning over and over again, following each time a somewhat different arch of action? How can the characters, playing their roles repeatedly as the people who inhabit Ursula’s various lives, ever seem substantial enough to warrant our enduring interest and concern? This book which starts the narrative of Ursula’s life over and over dozens of times might well have been frustrating and even boring to read. Instead it is gripping, coherent, sad, and at times amusing; if nothing else it is certainly habit-forming! After finishing this book, I rather hoped there would be a sequel, so I could read more about the various possibilities Ursula might encounter in yet another iteration of her life!

As a child born into a thriving middle-class family, Ursula lives a comfortable life in a pleasant country home, complete with servants, parties, good books, and lots of healthy outdoor living. There are dogs to play with, neighbors to socialize with, sports to enjoy. As in all families, there are tensions and trials between various family members, with one of Ursula’s brothers being especially unpleasant. More importantly, the world as it moves from the relatively calm Edwardian era through World War I and World War II, brings horrors and calamities of every kind to everyone, including Ursula and her friends and family.

Death comes wearing a variety of faces: in bombs on the war-torn streets, from the worldwide flu pandemic, from brutal husbands to sex offenders. Each time Ursula starts her life again she is haunted with an ambiguous fear that drives her to try to change the course of events that could lead to these fatal outcomes.   Sometimes she fails; sometimes she partially succeeds and gets a little farther along the trajectory of her own life or prevents a tragedy from happening to someone else.

Life After Life reads with the crisp clarity only a very gifted writer can bring to a story. There is nothing sentimental or trite in the descriptions of the pastoral countryside, nor is the reader spared the grim reality of life and death during the Blitz. The wonder is what ordinary people can endure as part of their daily struggles, or in the case of Ursula, as part of their life after life after life.

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