Book Appreciation: Celebrating Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” –The Best Novel of the 21st Century
By Roberta Silman
In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson has shown how boundless the imagination can be.
In one of the greatest stories of the 20th century — “The News From Ireland” — William Trevor poses this question in the diary of the English governess working in Ireland during the Great Famine: “Must not life go on lest all life cease?” It seems the right question for the circumstances of that heartbreaking story; it is also the right question for anyone who writes stories and novels in an effort to bear witness to a particular time or place or group of characters.
But how does life go on? Especially when what you want to explore is not just a few years of seminal Irish history, but most of a century marked by the unparalleled brutality of two world wars, as well as the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and the Stalin Terror? How to you do that and make it compelling in a fresh new way? Is all life linear, beginning with birth and ending with death? Or is it possible that life is more circular, that we are living many lives that swirl in our heads, that all those “what ifs” can actually unfold into different lives within the one we may be living? And how to get it all down on paper and make it understandable?
That is the task that Kate Atkinson set herself when she began writing Life After Life, a novel, published in the US in 2013, that many writers consider the best of the 21st century. In this work, the conventional contract between novelist and reader — the agreement that there will be a beginning, middle, and end — is thrown to the winds. In this story Atkinson examines the many possible lives of a group of characters who are either part of or connected to the Todd family as they evolve on their estate near London called Fox Corner. The novel spans from 1910, with the birth of the third child, Ursula, during a snowstorm, and continues — with many detours — until the late 1960s (Graham Greene’s The Comedians and the Six Day War in Israel are mentioned).
The protagonist is Ursula, who, as she matures, becomes the anchor of this family that is simultaneously representative of the English upper classes and uniquely strange as they break through the cocoon of their Englishness and experience all kinds of adventures. But before the narrative begins, there is an unforgettable first chapter dated 1930 in which Atkinson imagines a 20-year-old Ursula killing Hitler. Three pages of imagined history that could have changed the course of the world, but, sadly, didn’t. These pages haunt the rest of the book as we read on, summoning the needed courage to read the dreadful things that happened because Ursula’s attempt failed.
So here is a brilliant novel that has no discernible trajectory but many plots: people marrying, or not; others having children, or not; taking lovers, or not; being raped, or not; being kidnapped, or not; becoming alcoholics, or not; dying, or not. It is as if all the decisions someone could make are being played out, then sometimes discarded. But the narrative is peopled with characters you will never forget, figures you mostly root for wherever they find themselves. The focus is on the profoundly complicated Ursula and her siblings: the pompous Maurice, the infinitely kind Pamela, the lovable Teddy, and the shadowy Jimmy; her parents, the literary and sometimes petulant Sylvie and always noble Hugh; her irrepressible Aunt Izzie; their neighbors; Ursula’s lovers and colleagues; and a whole host of servants and their offspring. The setting also lurches from the bucolic English countryside to Munich before the Second World War to the Blitz in London, and even to Hitler’s final days in Berchtesgaden. Fortunately, Atkinson flags each chapter with dates so you know where you are, as you are sometimes hurtled back and forth in time. And once you are set down in a particular place, the prose is so clear and precise you feel you are doing more than reading about this horrible yet always fabulously interesting 20th century. You are living through it.
Indeed, it is the possibilities generated by events that make Life After Life so compelling and exciting. But the volatile nature of things is underpinned by solid knowledge of history, so you are given a vivid picture of what World War I wrought in the lives of these people. Even more graphic, and terrifying, is the portrayal of the Blitz in London during the Second World War — the horrors of the near deaths, the injuries, and the utter randomness of one’s fate during that dangerous time. As she works, literally picking up body parts after the incessant bombings, Ursula remembers the psychiatrist Sylvie and Hugh sent her to when she was 10 and had committed an act of violence no one could make sense of.
“Amor fati,” Dr Kellet said, “have you heard of that? It sounded like he had said, “A more fatty.” Ursula was puzzled — both herself and Dr. Kellet were on the lean side. Nietzsche (“philosopher”), he said, was drawn to it. “A simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good.”
“Werde, der du bist, as he would have it,” Dr. Kellet continued, knocking the ashes from his pipe onto the hearth from where Ursula supposed someone else would sweep them up. “Do you know what that means?” Ursula wondered how many ten-year-old girls Dr. Kellet had actually encountered before. “It means become who you are,” he said, adding more shreds of tobacco to the meerschaum. (The being before the non-being, Ursula supposed.) Nietzsche got that from Pindar…. Do you know Greek?” He had quite lost her now. “It means become such as you are, having learned what that is.”
But what about those whose lives were cut short because of the accidents of history? Reading those words about fate quoted above, I was reminded of the beginning of one of the great books of the 20th century — Hope Abandoned — where Nadezhda Mandelstam also addresses the question of fate or “predestination.” She says,
It is better to think in terms of having chosen the right path, by a conscious act of will, among all the millions of false turns and steps it is possible to make in life. Looking back on it, you may feel the path you have traveled was predestined, but all along the way there were thousands of turns and crossroads at which you could have chosen a completely different route. What we do with our lives is to some extent socially conditioned, since we all live at a particular moment in history but the realm of inevitability is confined to our historical coordinates — beyond them everything depends on us. Freedom is boundless, and even the personality, one’s own “self” is not something “given” once and for all; rather it takes shape in the course of one’s life, depending to a large extent on the path one has chosen.
It is those thousands of turns and crossroads that interest Atkinson and how her characters navigate them. Often, writers who are far more conventional than Atkinson will tell you that their characters start doing unexpected things, things they could not imagine when they first created them. By giving her characters the opportunity to transform into multiple selves, Atkinson has expanded the notion of what a novel can be. She has written a marvel of a book that, along with its historical insight, takes magical realism to a level where not only dream and fantasy have a place, but where various different lives can be envisioned — at least on the page. Her ability to juggle all those elements speaks to more than competence or inspiration.
This is genius. And a direct answer to anyone who bemoans the fate of the novel or thinks the novel reached its zenith with writers like Hemingway or Faulkner or Orwell or Garcia Marquez or Calvino.
In Life After Life Atkinson show us how boundless the imagination can be. Although her method may be unsettling at first (at least to some readers), she proves, as no one else has before her, that the suspension of disbelief can lead to unexpected, accessible fictional riches. Let us celebrate the book’s 10th anniversary and meet in its vibrant pages some of the questions — and answers — that fiction at its very finest should pose to us all.
Roberta Silman is the author of five novels, a short story collection, and two children’s books. Her latest, Summer Lightning, has been released as a paperback, an ebook, and an audio book. Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review) is in its second printing and is available on Amazon. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com, and she can also be reached at email@example.com.