In a novel about memory, Atkinson explores parallel lives, how we’re accompanied by people who we might have been and how painful this
notion sometimes is. Essentially writing a vast historical morality play, Atkinson uses the events of the tumultuous twentieth century to reflect
on the cycles of life and death.
The story begins
one cold winter night in February 1910 with the birth of Ursula to Sylvia Todd. The baby comes early, sabotaging Sylvia’s best-laid plans as
the helpless little heart beats wildly and stops suddenly, “like a bird dropping from the sky.” Deprived of air, Ursula nearly dies yet remarkably also lives, the new arrival ending up tucked away in the huge baby carriage under a beech tree. Sylvie finds herself frequently disturbed by the complexity of sibling relationships among her children.
While the future of England is metaphorically “clutched to Sylvie’s bosom,” her banker husband, Hugh, goes to war and Ursula grows older in the shadow of her sister, Pamela. Throughout Ursula’s difficult life, she lives and dies again and again. In each passage, we see her faults and assets quite clearly, even when we feel frustrated at her slowly disintegrating history. Faced with few choices for a woman of her time and place, Ursula has to constantly fight to be heard.
Employing a nonlinear narrative, Atkinson treads over familiar ground: from the Great War’s lost generation and the evolution of the Nazi regime, to the bloody carnage that was the London Blitz, to the shame of an unexpected pregnancy. Ursula is our nexus to Atkinson’s huge cast of characters: Ursula’s parents, Sylvia and Hugh; rebellious aunt Isobel; sister, Pamela; brothers Teddy and Maurice; and Fox Hall’s staff--Irish maid Bridget and Mrs. Glover, the Todd family’s beloved cook.
At once a meditation on biography and history, Life After Life considers the imperfect ways we "know or understand" someone, some time or some thing. When it’s revealed that Ursula was Eva Braun’s best friend and our witness to the rise of Hitler, she falls prey to a loneliness that has her questioning her own faith. Despite her isolation in the bleak environment of Nazi Germany--and despite her written pleas to Pamela--Ursula manages to fill the landscape with courage and love, and she touches many lives, even if momentarily. There's a sense of her
ever stirring up life, which is in turn reflected in her memories of bucolic Fox Corner, the Todd family’s rural nirvana.
Each of Ursula's connections--to herself and to others--reveals history and moments that are, at least in a certain sense, completed. Two images haunt the novel, towering over the action: Ursula’s efforts to clean up the torn and decapitated bodies in the midst of the London Blitz, and her own sudden death in a fractured bunker. Atkinson uses this latter scene as a technical device that masterfully draws us into threads of Ursula’s parallel existence.
Although I found this novel to be consistently imaginative, it is also excessively long and peppered with relentless details of the idiosyncrasies of the Todds. There’s not much joy here apart from Ursula’s heavily sardonic observations about her family and friends as she traverses though the wars. Still, the recurring themes of death and chaos do take on a profound and special meaning in the context of Ursula’s difficult and complex existence, which often resembles a living nightmare with no escape.