Critics have been raving for the last month about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but not many of them have touched on how deeply funny the book is (in a very dry, Mitford way) as we follow Ursula—level-headed and pragmatic—through a dizzying array of potential lives. Every time she dies, you see, she returns again to start her life all over. Sometimes she’s born dead, choked by the umbilical cord; sometimes her mother has purchased a pair of surgical scissors specifically for such an emergency and saves her. She often dies during the Blitz, though she also ends up married to an abusive prig in one instance that she never allows herself to repeat. And then, of course, there’s her friendship with Eva Braun during World War II, a woman she purposefully seeks out in a later life to stop the advent of World War II.
That’s one of the great, insoluble mysteries of each of Ursula’s lives: How much does she know? She is haunted by a sense of déjà vu, but only in a few lives does the déjà vu take solid form. And of course, Ursula isn’t the only one affected by her different choices. The people in Ursula’s life live and die based on whether or not she remembers enough of her previous lives to take a walk at exactly the right moment; her beloved younger brother seems perpetually destined for an early death, just as Ursula is perpetually driven by a force she doesn’t understand to protect him. One of the funniest chains of events has Ursula dying during the influenza epidemic and coming to that moment again and again after each new death, cannily trying to keep the maid at home, where she can’t bring the flu home with her. Thwarted repeatedly, Ursula finally prevails—but in the process earns herself a place on a psychiatrist’s couch.
There aren’t many happy endings doled out in Life After Life, which makes it remarkably similar to real life. But in each one, Ursula proves herself an unlikely heroine whose travails and triumphs are all equally moving. With this book, Atkinson has given readers a gift: A heroine who cycles through a wide range of plots and genres, and who remains steadfastly herself in them all. And perhaps now we can all agree to replace the dreary If on a winter’s night a traveler… with Life After Life.