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Review: Life After Life, By Kate Atkinson

The heroine of this elegant experimental novel gets not one, but several chances to alter the course of history

Aficionados of Kate Atkinson's novels – this is the eighth – will tell you that she writes two sorts: the "literary" kind, exemplified by her Whitbread Prize-winning debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and the Jackson Brodie crime thrillers. In reality, the distinction is superfluous. Atkinson is a literary writer who likes experimenting with different forms, and her books appeal to a huge audience, full stop. However, for those still keen on these discriminations, Life After Life is one of the "literary" ones. As with the Brodies, Atkinson steers with a light touch, despite the grimness of the subject matter.

"What if we had the chance to do it again and again … until we finally get it right?" asks one of the characters near the end. Life after Life is about being given that chance. In the opening scene, it's 1930. A young woman named Ursula enters a coffee shop in Germany and shoots a man she addresses as "Führer". The episode ends with the words: "Darkness fell." Next, we're back in 1910, with a snowstorm raging outside. A baby girl is born, and, in the absence of medical intervention, dies. Again, those words: "Darkness fell". The scene is replayed, but this time the doctor makes it through the snow and baby Ursula lives. The child thrives until her fifth summer, when she drowns on a Cornish beach. Darkness falls again, and we're sent back to 1910. Are you getting the idea? In Ursula's next chance at doing it right, an artist rescues her from the waves, and darkness does not fall again until 1915, when she slips from a bedroom window while trying to rescue a doll ….

By this time, the reader may wonder whether he or she hasn't ended up in a game of snakes and ladders played on the grand scale. Some of the narrative tension derives from seeing how long Ursula will last each time – she's very accident prone – but in the meantime there's plenty else going on. Each time an event is revisited, it's described differently, from another character's viewpoint, or with extra context, or slight changes to the circumstances, and it gradually dawns on you that the author is up to something more subtle and complex than mere writerly legerdemain.

Overall, it's safe to say that the early narrative follows the following course: Ursula is the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, brought up in an idyllic English upper-middle-class country home, sister to the soulless and pragmatic Maurice and jolly-hockey-sticks Pamela. She's an engaging girl, but quirky, with a tendency to fits of what her despairing mother calls "déjà-vu". Teddy, the sunny family darling, arrives soon after, then, finally, Jimmy, conceived after Hugh's return from Flanders Fields. Swelling the dramatis personae are disreputable Aunt Izzie – ripe to play a pivotal role in many of Ursula's crises – Mrs Glover the dour cook, and Bridget, the plain-faced Irish maidservant.

Beyond this basic set up, all bets are off. Bridget and Teddy may or may not die of Spanish flu, Ursula this time returning to Square One in order to save them, rather than because she's died herself. On her 16th birthday, Ursula may or may not be raped by a university pal of Maurice's, causing her life to decline to a particularly nasty dead end. Or does she instead throw off the rapist, go to college and visit Germany where she befriends Eva Braun?

Whatever the outcome of individual strands, the novel pushes on towards its heartland: the London Blitz. Ursula works for the War Office, has an on-off affair with an older ex-Navy officer, does or doesn't become an ARP warden. Some of the most vivid scenes concern the work of the rescue teams as, with bombs falling and buildings collapsing around them, they pursue their grim agenda. Again and again, Ursula experiences one particularly traumatic event: a direct hit on a dozen people sheltering in a cellar in Argyll Road in November 1940. The horror is drummed in so hard that it becomes apparent where the logic of the novel will lead: the war should not have been allowed to happen.

The novels of Kate Atkinson habitually shuffle past and present, but Life After Life takes the shuffling to such extremes that the reader has to hold on to his hat. It's more than a storytelling device. Ursula and her therapist discuss theories of time. He tells her that it is circular, but she claims that it's a palimpsest. The writer has a further purpose. Elsewhere, Atkinson is quoted as saying: "I'm very interested in the moral path, doing the right thing." It's impossible not to be sympathetic toward Ursula, who yearns to save the people she loves and has been blessed – or cursed – with the ability to do it.