Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually and ‘celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.’ We delve into the second of the six shortlisted novels — Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.
The highly popular children’s series Choose Your Own Adventure resonated because it allowed adolescents to play God, to assume the role of the protagonist and make choices that determined the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome. In similar fashion, Kate Atkinson’s stunning genre-bending tale Life after Life, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013, invites readers to take an inconceivable journey tracing the multiple different narratives of English protagonist Ursula’s life. Akin to a child who jumps back to the beginning when their adventure goes awry, Atkinson continually forces Ursula to live her life again and again until she finally gets it right.
It is 11 February 1910. Sylvie Todd prematurely gives birth to her third child on a catastrophically cold and snowy night – causing all roads to be obstructed. With only her scullery maid Bridget for help, Sylvie’s baby is a stillborn – strangled by the umbilical cord wrapped portentously around her neck.
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropping from the sky. A single shot. Darkness fell.
It is 11 February 1910. Dr. Fellowes arrives at Fox Corner ‘in the nick of time’ to stop the umbilical cord from wrapping itself around the baby’s neck – soon to be known as Ursula Beresford Todd.
Just as she escaped death the first time, Ursula goes on to lead numerous existences – each dictated by chance encounters and random actors punctuating the passage of her life – interspersed with ostensibly impossible recollections as a baby, piercing headaches, seemingly unexplainable feelings of ‘terrible fear’, and memories of a future she has never lived.
She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest.
In disturbing loops of seemingly unavoidable twists of fate, we watch time and time again as the Todd household succumbs to illness, death and travesty.
Although Ursula may be the star of this beautifully crafted tale, readers become intimately familiar with the brilliantly conveyed characters that inhabit Ursula’s life – jumping out from the pages in their vibrancy. Sylvie, the feisty, fiercely intelligent yet traditional matriarch, is contrasted against her husband Hugh – gentle and loved by all with ‘kind green eyes’. Ursula’s brother Maurice is sketched as cruel, unfeeling and unruly from the outset, while her sister Pamela is a pillar of support and her moral compass, regardless of which narrative her life takes.
The less primary characters – such as the uproarious Izzy, the benevolent Miss Woolf, and the difficult cook Mrs. Glover – inject the novel with colour while the mysterious ‘shabby creature hobbling along as fast as he could’ around Fox Corner strikes palpable fear into the heart whenever he is near.
By grounding the novel amid the turbulent World War I and II, the outbreak of influenza, wartime austerity measures, and the inescapable loss of life, Atkinson imbues her novel with an authenticity that renders it all the more relatable, all the more traumatic.
The novel is at its most visceral when it portrays Ursula’s claustrophobic marriage to a pathologically abusive Englishman, and her life as an Air Raid Precaution warden patrolling the war-torn streets of Britain of the 1940s. However, Ursula’s tale does meander needlessly in the German narrative where she is married to a Nazi.
Certain throwaway lines buried esoterically in the novel give rise to the possibility that Sylvie may harbour the same sixth sense her daughter possesses, but Atkinson never clearly addresses this possibility; just as several similarly raised questions go unanswered.
Although the premise of the novel is divulged in the very first chapter – thus exposing Ursula’s underpinnings – nothing is ever a given. By gifting her protagonist the self-determination to continually change the fate that befalls her, Atkinson veers away from the idea of predetermined destinies and the inevitably of one’s future – an either liberating, or exhausting concept, depending on which way one construes Ursula’s astonishing journey.