Kate Atkinson: Life After Life


No doubt, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life will touch every reader in his or her own way. For me, whose Independence came as one by-product of Britain’s preoccupation with rebuilding its shattered home-base after World War II, the novel reminds that neither lust for nor demise of empire is new; nor are war, lust for freedom, the overthrow of bondage and propitious peace.

The novel also reminds, lest we forget, that not too long ago the Western European slaughterhouse bore a cold but uncanny resemblance to the present war zone of the sub-Saharan Sahel – a slaughterhouse in the name of any blend of similar abstracts such as power, ethnic cleansing and greed.

Remembrance Days and blood-red poppies do their best to assuage with gratitude the shudder of lives lost in 20th century wars, as psyches remain chastened by deaths that touched households even in the so-called third-world.

In fact, depending on parallels made by the individual reader, ‘life after life, war after war’ can hardly be disclaimed as one explicated subtext of the novel.  

For the novel speculates fictively on alternative historical versions of the period 1910 to 1945 and even the 1967 Israel-Arab conflict through the uncanny gift of having been there before.

It does this through its main character Ursula, the endearing “little bear.”  

As for Ursula, it can hardly be coincidental that her name, a familiar European name given at birth, harks back to European ur-warriors and ur-war history, the name being that of a virgin on a pilgrimage, killed by Huns of the 4th century Eastern European Hunnic Empire. That virgin later became a saint, Saint Ursula.

However, more fascinating to me than such dark universal parallels of Atkinson’s Life After Life is the more intimate and enigmatic epigraph, Nietzsche’s ‘What-if …’ 

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest   loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times     more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke         thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You   are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’

This ‘What-if’ extended question in a way invokes for me my collective unconscious, the contiguous history that affirms my presence, generation after generation, on at least two levels: (1) the life I all share with all humanity, and (2) the life I share with my particular cultural descendancy.

Could this history have been different? The fact is that it is not.

For Ursula and her family, the Todds, their home at Fox Corner and their British middle class life were changed forever in the aftermath of World War II; for me, the blitzing of London left me an orphan once more, this time exulting in the feeling in 1962 that I had won myself a reluctantly granted freedom. Much later I realized that I was shoved off; I would never have had to fight for independence at all.

Barring this cynicism, of course, I feel considerable pride in the fact that I’ve made good on so often having been orphaned and thrown overboard.

Could this history have been different? The fact is that it is not.

To compound matters, Atkinson’s Life After Life suggests that the collective memory of a culture is embedded in the psyche of its descendants, even those who were ‘not there’ to witness.

Whole cultures are transformed, renewed and or shattered when any one piece is damaged and or altered.

That’s why, in part, I come to narratives of transshipment always with fresh eyes, searching for uncovered angles, for pieces still untold, more so since wars and empires to which I am bound, both by humanity and by particular descendancy continue to abound.

The power of Life After Life lies greatly in this ‘What-if’ structure and changing speculative recurrences interwoven throughout the novel. But just as important is the reality the novel depicts – the before and the after. In the case of Great Britain one looks at the cultural strength, complacency, serenity and middle-class pretentiousness of the before and the considerable leveling of the after, a leveling that disbanded hierarchies, and brought greater equality and opportunity for the feudal servant class.

In sum, from a philosophical standpoint, Life after Life awakens the reader to how he or she is connected to the chain of life in general and to a particular chain of life. It speculates on alternative pathways along historical roads without glossing over the road traveled. This narrative tease makes Life After Life a fascinating novel that reverberates through the minds of its varied readers.


©Cynthia James, January 2014

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