Thursday, October 22, 2020

Book 256: Life After Life


"And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur–if a dish was to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances."

Dates read: August 19-25, 2018

Rating: 8/10

I have a small scar right about a half inch above my left eye. When I was a kid, I was jumping on the bed and my mom told me to stop. I jumped off entirely, and the scar is where the corner of the open dresser drawer I didn't keep track of went into my face. Just a tiny difference in my jump and I would have lost the eye. I wonder what would have changed in my life if I had. Or if I'd made any number of different choices before I went to college. Or while I was in college! If I'd gone to a different law school. If I'd taken a year off between undergrad and law school. If I'd gone to grad school for psychology instead. If, if, if. The fact is that there's no point in torturing myself with hypotheticals for things that have gone "wrong". Things are the way they are and all I can do is try to make the best choices I can from here.

What if, though, things could be changed? If you could go back, live again, make different choices? In Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, on a snowy night in England in 1910, Ursula Todd is born and immediately dies, choked by her umbilical cord, because neither the doctor or midwife made it on time. Then, on the same snowy night, she's born again, but this time the doctor makes it and the cord is cut and she lives. Until she's three, when she follows her older sister Pamela into the ocean and is swept away. Then she's born again with the doctor there, and manages to survive the family trip to the seaside but perishes at age five when her big brother Maurice throws her toy onto the roof and she tries to scramble after it but falls. And so on and so forth. She doesn't remember her previous lives, per se, but has strong feelings about crucial events that drive her to new actions in the face of them.

Where the book spends the bulk of its time is Ursula's various World War II experiences. In a few she dies when a bomb falls on her apartment building. In a few she's working on the rescue/cleanup squad. And in at least one, she's living in Germany. The fates of her family members, too, change in each go-round. What happens to Teddy, her sensitive, thoughtful younger brother who becomes a pilot, has a major impact on how things go for the family. Some things, though, never change: her deeply practical and stalwart sister Pamela always marries and has children and spends the war at the family home, and belligerent brother Maurice is never much liked by his parents or siblings and always rises to positions of authority.

Anyone who's ever wondered how things might have turned out if they had a chance to do it all over again (i.e. pretty much everyone) will find this an intriguing concept. And it allows Atkinson freedom to really explore the ways in which seemingly-small moments can resonate enormously in our lives, which she does with clear, assured prose that feels almost old-fashioned or "classic" in tone. Refreshingly, the most important choices are mostly unrelated to her romantic relationships with men! As a lady person, I'm used to books (and the world in general, honestly) treating marriage and childbearing as the central dramas of women's lives. Who she loves, though, is much less important to Ursula's story than her relationships with her siblings, particularly Pamela and Teddy, who are both wonderfully likable characters and the kind of siblings everyone wants to have.

What held back this novel from greatness for me was that with so many lives cataloged, I found myself sometimes more interested in how she would die this time than how that life actually played out, as well as a portion near the end that bugged a little bit because it made me question the underlying mechanics of it all. To be honest, though, these quibbles are a little on the nitpicky side and I wonder if they would have occurred to me if I'd read this book completely free from expectations. It's a very good book, well-written and enjoyable. But when I read it after hearing about how good it was for years, I was expecting something mind-blowing and it didn't get there, for me. Like I said, though, it's still something I liked quite a bit and I'd recommend it to all readers!

One year ago, I was reading: The Line of Beauty

Two years ago, I was reading: Detroit, An American Autopsy

Three years ago, I was reading: White Fur

Four years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Five years ago, I was reading: Through the Language Glass

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