Although she’s named for a bear, Ursula Beresford Todd has more lives than the cat that smothered her as an infant. Confused? Welcome to the fiction of Kate Atkinson.
For the conventional record, Ursula is born in 1910 and dies in 1967, although she lives dozens of lives, revealed by the title of Atkinson’s eighth novel, “Life After Life.” The alternate title could also be “Death After Death,” as our heroine suffers painful departures with the finality of the frequent phrase, “darkness falls.”
Atkinson’s premise is: “What if we had a chance to do it again and again … until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
That chance is given to Ursula, who will die over and over — strangled by her umbilical cord, sat upon by Queenie the cat, stricken in the 1918 influenza epidemic, beaten by a miserable husband, poisoned by her own hand in the final days of the Third Reich, falling off a roof and crushed several times in the 1940 London Blitz, to list just a few.
Each death teaches her something about how to get her ultimate life right as she’s spared each time to return smarter and stronger until she realizes her destiny.
Atkinson gives herself the chance that no novelist can refuse — the luxury of rewriting her heroine’s life and turning the revisions into a novel about revision. The British writer is nothing if not clever, as her last four books with private eye Jackson Brodie prove, with their twisting plots that expose the inner workings of tragedies a long time in the making.
It would be easy to dismiss her as an exceptionally deft maker of crime plots if she weren’t such a fine writer, a skill displayed in “Life After Life” with its vivid characters centered around Ursula’s large family.
Parents Sylvie and Hugh are fully rounded people, loving and selfish in turn. Ursula’s siblings, Aunt Izzie, servants Bridget and Mrs. Glover, neighbors, friends and lovers are distinct in their own right, filling the pages with a liveliness and intelligence that buoys the reader as the book begins to sink under the gimmicky nature of the story. So much fascinating reality lives amid the artificial feel of Atkinson’s fantasy.
One area of the book rises above all others — the description of the Nazi bombing of London. Atkinson’s accounts of life in the middle of so much mechanized death rank with the stunning war writing of fellow Brit novelist Pat Barker, although neither was alive to experience the fighting.
Ursula’s quest to “get it right” gradually becomes less important than Atkinson’s talent to create such an entertaining and suspenseful story that tells many versions of the history of the 20th century.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.