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07 July 2015

Book Review: Life After Life

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sliding doors. What ifs. Do overs.

Ursula lives several times. She makes different choices resulting in different results. Or is a victim of slightly different circumstances, resulting in different results. But she is only marginally aware of her power to change her fate; intuition. Deja Vu. The 1918 flu was damned hard for her to avoid. She finally pushes their maid down the stairs and survives it. Much later in the book, when you'd forgotten the several times and ways the flu got her, she tells her maid that the boyfriend she was going to accompany to London, where she will get the flu and die, killing off several members of the family as well, is cheating on her. So the maid breaks up with the boyfriend and he's the only one who dies of flu. "At least no one got pushed down the stairs this time," she tells the maid. Not knowing why she says that.

Atkinson presents the timeline without a timeline. She hopes back and forth over the milestones of Ursula's life. We don't get one life and a totally alternate life. We get snippets of all her alternate lives in one of those slide puzzle games. The whole picture is there but damn if I can figure out how to slide it into place.

However, the most intriguing what-if is never fully fleshed out. Atkinson opens the book with Ursula shooting Hitler in November 1930. She spends most of the rest of the book avoiding return to this reality. There is a reality where Ursula goes to Germany pre-WWII and marries a German and is in Hitler's inner circle. There's a reality where Ursula stays in London and dies in a bombing raid. Several bombing raid death realities. There's a reality where Ursula survives the war and lives to retire. But there's no reality where she kills Hitler, before Hitler became Hitler, and stops a whole century of history. She just kills HItler on the first page of the book. Then darkness falls.

But in one of her realities, one where she survives the war, she has a flight of fancy. It is 1967 and the Six Day war is flaring in the middle east. She is having lunch with one of her nephews and launches into this conversation.

"But if Hitler had been killed before he became Chancellor, it would have stopped all this conflict between Arabs and the Israelis, wouldn't it?  I mean, I do understand why the Jews wanted to create an independent state and defend it vigorously, and I always felt sympathy for the Zionist cause, even before the war, but, on the other hand, i can also understand why the Arab states are so aggrieved. But if Hitler had been unable to implement the Holocaust..."
"Because he was dead?"
"Yes, because he was dead. Then support for a Jewish homeland would have been weak at best..."
"History is all about what-ifs," Nigel said.
"I heard someone say once that hindsight was a wonderful thing, that without it there would be no history."
"They're probably right."
"But think how different things would be," Ursula persisted. "The Iron Curtain would probably not have fallen and Russia wouldn't have been able to gobble up Eastern Europe."
"Well, it was just pure greed. And the Americans might not have recovered from the Depression so quickly without a war economy and consequently not exerted so much influence on the postwar world..."
"An awful lot of people would still be alive."
"Well, yes, obviously. And the whole cultural face of Europe would be different because of the Jews. And think of all those displaced people, shuffling from one country to another. And Britain would still have an empire, or at least we wouldn't have lost it so precipitately--I'm not saying being an imperial power is a good thing, of course. And we wouldn't have bankrupted ourselves and had such an awful time recovering, financially and psychologically. And no Common Market..."
"Which won't let us in anyway."
"Think of how strong Europe would be! But perhaps Goering or Himmler would have stepped in. And everything would have happened in just the same way."
"Perhaps. But the Nazis were a marginal party almost up until they took power. They were all fanatical psychopaths, but none of them had Hitler's charisma."
"Oh, I know," Ursula said. "He was extraordinarily charismatic. People talk about charisma as if it were a good thing, but really it's a kind of glamour--in the old sense of the word, casting a spell, you know? I think it was the eyes, he had the most compelling eyes. If you looked in them you felt you were putting yourself in danger of believing..."
"You met him?" Nigel asked, astonished.
"Well," Ursula said. "Not exactly. Would you like dessert, dear?"

It is after this conversation that Ursula, for the first time, seems to take fate by the horns and almost make a decision to kill Hitler in 1930. The wave isn't carrying her, she's controlling the wave. Atkinson takes us back to Ursula's birth, in 1910, which resulted in several of her deaths but this time she lives, of course, and seems to control the course of events that results in shooting Hitler. She does it. Darkness falls.

Then we return to Ursula's birth again. This time her mother, Sylvie, is prepared with surgical scissors to cut the umbilical cord that has choked Ursula to death many times before.

"Shush," Sylvie said and held aloft her trophy--a pair of surgical scissors that gleamed in the lamplight. "One must be prepared," she muttered. "Hold the baby close to the lamp so I can see. Quickly, Bridget. There's no time to waste." Snip, snip. Practice makes perfect."

If Atkinson ended the book there, I would have rested easily with the conclusion that both Ursula and Sylvie were aware enough of their sliding doors to make a choice to take fate by the reins.  There's a great quote in Eat, Pray, Love that captures what I felt at this moment; "We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses--one foot is on the horse called "fate," the other on the horse called "free will." And the question you have to ask every day is--which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it's not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?" Ursula and Sylvie had figured out which horse was which.

But Atkinson didn't end the book there. She tacks on two more sliding doors. First she goes back to 1945 and brings Ursula's brother Teddy home safely from the war. Then she returns again to 1910 to tell the story of Mrs. Haddock, who was supposed to go help Sylvie deliver the baby but got caught in the snowstorm.  This was a word-for-word repeat of an earlier version of reality. I confess myself completely bamboozled. What does it mean? Am I missing something?

Well, I'm sure I'm missing a great deal. And I'm sure I could read, and re-read and study and parse this book to death. I don't think it's worth that. It isn't a staggering work of genius, after all. But it is intriguing. And makes one think about how small choices become big realities. What if I hadn't chosen to write this book review right at this very moment and had taken my dog for a walk instead? Would I be dead? A millionaire? Just the same?

Who knows?

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