Read Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (2013) if you want to study Atkinson at work on the process of novel making. This is her eighth novel in 18 years, and she clearly has mastered most aspects of the craft. But don’t read it to lose yourself in the compelling lives of her characters.
Instead, read this novel to experience what it might be like to sit on the floor of a film editor’s studio, sorting through takes and retakes of multiple plot lines. Or, if such a benevolent editor exists, imagine yourself a literary editor sorting through a 527 page manuscript, choosing among 16 plot lines and 10 ways of killing your engaging protagonist: umbilical cord wrapped around the newborn’s neck, drowning at age 4, accidental falling from a window, influenza in 1918, gas leak in 1947, assault by her husband, bomb raid in London 1940, falling wall after a bomb raid, and a bomb raid in Berlin 1945.
This reading experience left me more tantalized than satisfied. I felt drawn in by her intimate character development, her masterful scene-making, and her narrative voice. She delivers people and stories from 1910-67 in England and Germany that are rich with historical relevance and deep with detail and nuance. Her portraits of Ursula Todd enduring the 1940 Blitz of London and the 1945 bombing of Berlin are gripping and memorable. But 12 plot shifts during the first 100 pages make it risky to attach yourself to any one plot or version of a character. I kept looking for the writer’s next clever plot trick.
How far can a novelist strain the faith of the loyal reader? Atkinson tells us in her “Behind the Scenes” author’s notes, that she considered initially writing a “what if” short story about what life might have been like had Hitler been kidnapped as a baby and prevented from coming to power. But, she writes, “I knew that I wanted something more complex than that, something downright trickier, something multi-layered and slightly fractal.” That’s a good word for this experience—fractal, in the sense of multiple images or stories, at the expense of coherence. Life After Life is a study of variations on the life of Ursula Todd. Atkinson has produced the fractal novel, and it is “downright trickier,” but for me it’s as satisfying as watching TV while someone else compulsively switches channels.
…In an apparently whimsical sequence. And here’s where the fractal concept breaks down, because, unlike a screen with multiple image fragments, the novel is linear and the sequence is determined not by the viewer but by the author. I count 28 switches from one plot line to another with no apparent pattern or rationale for when to switch forward or back, or which plot to switch to next. Author intuition may have guided the selection, but this novel might not be much changed if the reader chooses some other sequence, such as skipping ahead two chapters then back one. I would love to have been a fly on the wall as editor and author debated this chapter sequence. What’s the optimal number of plots, and when to switch to which plot? How many times can we kill our protagonist and still keep our reader?
The plot line of the opening chapter, in which Ursula assassinates Hitler in 1930, is abandoned until p 511, and this plot line is incompatible with the intervening 14 plot lines. This chapter sequence sets up a startling event as an apparent keynote, then shelves it for over 500 pages. Would it have worked as well or better to read this possible plot line after we have followed Ursula through a stunning sexual trauma in adolescence or her first trip to Munich?
Each time Ursula dies, darkness falls in some fashion. But curiously, of the 13 times that chapters end with this refrain, two darkness refrains follow scenes with no deaths of anyone. The second of these ends with “Darkness, and so on,” suggesting to me an author tiring of her own refrain. But it’s only page 113 at this point, and we see this refrain five more times with good effects in each context. This variation on the refrain is oddly dismissive, just one of many derailings that keep the reader in a semi-detached position.
Yet in spite of these derailings, Life After Life does what a novel must. It leaves me feeling touched by the lives and minds of Ursula Todd, and, in the end, I feel thankful to Atkinson for the depth of her effort to give us these characters and this slice of history. She has done her homework, and this novel sings in many ways. I just wish she had spared us such a heavy dose of trickery. Maybe next time.