Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s brilliantly conceived new novel, walks into a cafe in Munich in 1930 and spies Adolf Hitler and his lover, Eva Braun, cozying up over cake and coffee at a distant table. She catches the Fuhrer’s eye; he cordially greets her, and, despite Braun’s coolness, she joins them.
When Hitler recommends the streusel, she eats a few bites, then reaches down to her purse to retrieve a handkerchief to wipe away crumbs from her lips. Then she reaches down again – this time to grab her father’s World War I service revolver, which she points straight at the German madman’s heart.
I will not spoil the outcome of this incident – which forms the prologue to Atkinson’s masterful reinvention of the novel – but simply say that it is far from the most fantastic scenario of the book.
Using a dramatic, gripping prose that puts her readers at full attention, Atkinson doesn’t waste a single word in the book’s beginning, an exacting narrative of less than two pages that makes us hunger for more.
Then darkness falls.
On the night of Feb. 11, 1910, during a powerful snowstorm in Buckinghamshire, England, Ursula, “the little bear,” is born to her mother, Sylvie, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The doctor cannot arrive in time to help, because the road to Fox Corner, the house where the Todd family lives, has been closed.
And so Ursula dies.
“Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
“Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.”
Then, two pages later, on the same night, Dr. Fellowes stands besides Sylvie’s bed, holds up a pair of surgical scissors he has used to cut the cord and says triumphantly, “Snip, snip.”
And so Ursula lives, to begin again.
If any readers thought that the novel in the 21st century was headed toward Ursula’s initial fate as a newborn, writers from across the Atlantic have proven them wrong in the past two years.
Focusing on theme of time and memory (John Banville, “Ancient Light”) or existential possibilities (Sebastian Faulks, “A Possible Life”), Irish and English novelists have beamed a fresh artistic light onto the human condition.
Now, Atkinson, who lives in Edinburgh (and will be at Watermark Books & Cafe on Saturday), has created the most original twist thus far, redefining both time and possibility in the 57-year lifespan of Ursula, which teems with a nearly infinite number of beginnings – starting from the same events but yielding vastly different results.
Indeed, darkness falls again and again: Ursula drowns as a 5-year-old in a tidal undertow, then is rescued by an amateur painter near the sea. She slips off the icy ledge of an upper-story window, then is called away from the window by a sibling. She succumbs to the Spanish flu after Armistice Day, when the Todds’ maid, Bridget, returns from a London rally and infects the entire household, then, again on the same day, she stays safely upstairs in bed, free from the fatal virus.
In short order, we find ourselves perched on a precipice of shifting, uncertain expectations. Ursula lives, dies, lives again. Now you see her; now you don’t.
Call it quantum fiction.
It would be an understatement to say that Atkinson makes serious demands on her readers. First, we must risk a supreme suspension of disbelief. Then we must be vigilant to remember the various outcomes of events that all have the same beginning. And we must expect a prose passionate enough to engage us on every page, echoing, in this case, with motifs of snow and valor and darkness falling.
Ultimately, however, we must find in Ursula a character worthy of beginning a life over and over, surviving two world wars and dying (for real) in the turbulent 1960s.
To this end, Atkinson casts a mystical aura around her, whether it is her keen sense of deja vu, her ability to read her siblings’ minds or her sensing doom before it befalls her during the London Blitz of 1940.
Exactly what makes Ursula so prone to begin again? When, as a child (in yet another possibility), she pushes Bridget down the stairs at Fox Corner to try to prevent her from going to the flu-infected VE Day rally, she winds up in front of a psychiatrist, who addresses her as an adult, throwing out theories of Buddhist reincarnation and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati (loving one’s fate) and the eternal return (living the same life over and over).
But darkness falls on all these ideas.
Though innovative and enthralling, “Life After Life” also contains substantial stretches of stout, linear British narrative. Atkinson proves particularly strong in portraying the warmth, love and regularity of family life among the Edwardian bourgeoisie.
With more than a whiff of “Downton Abbey” in her settings, she evokes the gentrified belief in the general goodness of the world. Stiff upper lip and all that, old chap – even in the face of tragedy .
The reader, though, can be more self-indulgent with his or her emotions.
When Ursula lies in her pram early in the novel, momentarily forgotten by her family, she sees “stars and a rising moon – astonishing and terrifying in equal measure.”
That is an apt description of “Life After Life” – until darkness falls for the final time. Then the novel becomes what every author hopes it will be: unforgettable.