Thursday, May 29, 2014
'Life After Life': The Author's Power to Create Time, Meaning, and the Perpetual Do Over
"No point in thinking," she said briskly, "you just have to get on with life . . . We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try."
"What if we had a chance to do it again and again," Teddy said, "until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
It would be wonderful if we were able to redo our life's mishaps, tribulations and tragedies - still births, Spanish Flu, falling accidents, drowning, suicide, the death of brothers and sisters, and even reverse the fate of millions by assassinating Hitler. In Kate Atkinson's critically acclaimed novel, "Life After Life" she toys with the notion that life exists in perpetuity - a constant state of flux and do-overs. Outcomes can change with the twist of an ankle down the stairs, or a slight timing of events. Even if personalities don't necessarily change, the events of life can.
I wasn't sure when I first picked up this hefty novel if I'd be able to make it past the first 20 pages. It opens with a scene of Hitler's assassination, but the next very short chapter opens the novel again with the still birth of baby girl, and then the next chapter begins the birth chapter again with slight changes. I restarted this book three times (thinking I was just to dumb to grasp the concept), and as the saying goes, three times is a charm because on that third try, my brain fixated on the characters enough to move me through the choppy first chapters and into the winding paths of "Life After Life."
Chronology does not exist in this book, but the continuity of the storyline flows. I latched on to the familiar scenes - this is the part where she drowns, this is the part where she deals with WWII, this is the part that she deals with the fate of her family and the Spanish Flu, this is the part where she can possibly stop the death of her brother, the death of Nancy, the death of herself. It becomes a dizzying effect of time, space, jumping from storyline to storyline, but following the same family of characters. Ursula, described as a very intense child with green eyes and an old soul, has the power of reincarnation and she has an awareness of this gift enough that her mother, Sylvie decides that she should see Dr. Kellet who does not flinch at Ursula's knowledge of the future. Ursula both knows and doesn't know that life feels familiar.
What Atkinson created in the pages of "Life After Life" becomes a homage to the power of the author. How does an author decide on the fates of her characters? How does she decide who lives and who dies? How does the story connect and teach and create meaning for the readers? Where does a story begin and end? These questions are also the questions of life, right? We are all a bit like Ursula - maybe not being reincarnated to stop Hitler or to befriend Eva Braun or to save our lovable brother, Teddy's life, or to pick up a stray dog after a bombing and name him Lucky, but we are all wading through the constant ebb and flow of life - making meaning of the past, looking toward the future and finding meaning in our present day. There are those odd occasions where it all feels like we have been somewhere before or we'll catch ourselves saying "this is meant to be" or "I knew this would be the way things turned out."
For me, the magic in Atkinson's work stemmed from her playfulness even in the face of tragedy. Her unending literary references (which I loved) made me smile even in the most tragic spaces of Ursula's life. Although Ursula was not the most engaging character I have ever read, I wanted to see her succeed. I wanted her to live through the tragedies. I wanted her to "bear witness" to the destruction of England during WWII and be strong enough to carry on. I never stopped rooting for her to beat fate or to create fate or to be happy.
Atkinson's novel restored my faith in the power of the contemporary writer. We are all products of our past and all working with what we have in the present state, and hoping that we can make a mark on the future. "Life After Life" paves a very meandering path for future writers to aspire to.