The first of Kate Atkinson’s books to feature her private investigator Jackson Brodie, “Case Histories” (2004), concerns three separate murders taking place in three different years, subtly braided together by a plot that Brodie must unravel. In one of those murders, a young housewife has impulsively killed her husband with an ax and sits with the body, miserably contemplating what wish she’d make if a fairy godmother suddenly appeared. She knows exactly what she would ask: “to go back to the beginning of her life and start all over again.”
By the time “Case Histories” appeared, Atkinson had been a best-selling novelist for a decade, ever since her first novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” won the Whitbread Prize in 1995 and became a smash hit. Other novels have followed at steady intervals. Her latest book, “Life After Life,” is longer than its predecessors, and so is the interval. It doesn’t star Jackson Brodie. It is noticeably ambitious.
The basic plot is exactly that young housewife’s wish: Ursula Todd is born at a country house on a snowy night in 1910 — and dies immediately, strangled by her own umbilical cord, for want of a snow-delayed doctor, “dead before she had a chance to live.” But Ursula is to get many such chances. That same evening, she’s born again and this time is saved by the doctor who arrives in time. And on every other occasion when she dies, at whatever age, by whatever means (the flu, accident, German bombs during the Blitz), she rebounds to that same night in 1910 and starts all over again, each time with vague but increasingly firm “memories” of all the previous times. At one point her aunt Izzie quips, “I bet the first French words you learned were deja vu.”
The gimmick will be very familiar to science fiction fans. Countless stories, perhaps most famously Ken Grimwood’s 1987 cult favorite novel “Replay” (and a certain 1993Bill Murray movie, to which this novel will so inevitably be compared that it’s a wonder Atkinson didn’t save time and title it “Life After Groundhog Day”), have shared just such a premise. Familiar also to science fiction fans will be the grinding frustration that arises when a mainstream novelist goes on a Victorian-style picnic in her genre without bothering to take that genre seriously.
A sometime inspiration of Ursula’s is the possibility of using her friendship with teenage Eva Braun to get close enough to Hitler to shoot him, thereby avoiding the horrors that will otherwise visit London in the Blitz (where Ursula volunteers as a member of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service). But she often seems to forget this mission, caught up in wartime romances with Crighton from the Admiralty or Ralph from her German class, caught up, too, in the various complications of the Todd family, which never seems to change much from one alternate reality to another. For long stretches in this long novel, Ursula no more thinks about Hitler than he thinks about her.
The book is at its best in those stretches. Haphazardly grafted onto the story of a young woman who is constantly reincarnated is the story of a young woman trying to cope with the brutality of wartime London. In other parts of the book, Atkinson’s period research can be heavy-handed, with characters going out of their way to call cigarettes “gaspers” or reel off a half-dozen now-defunct brand names.
But the Blitz segments vibrate with life, as vivid and horrifying as a series of glimpses into a charnel house. (In one sparely described scene, a family survives the destruction of their house by hiding in the basement — only to be trapped there by a burst water main.) Here the natural exuberance of Atkinson’s prose — a late-September afternoon is described as “crisp as an apple” — is brought into sharp, precise control. Buried inside “Life After Life” is the best Blitz novel since Sarah Waters’s “The Night Watch.”
The rest is about a woman to whom “Home was an idea, and like Arcadia it was lost in the past.” A 16-year-old Ursula might at one point be thrilling to the verses of Andrew Marvell (“What a wondrous life is this I lead!”), but an older Ursula, thinking of that endless process of birth and rebirth, hits closer to the mark when she worries, “It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.”
And Hitler? Well, don’t go sending sympathy cards to poor Eva just yet.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
LIFE AFTER LIFE
By Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. 529 pp. $27.99