Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: Alternate History & ‘What Ifs?’

What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? ~ Kate Atkinson

I’m now back in England, after a lovely week of snow and mountain air. Unlike some passengers on our flight home, I am thankfully back with all of my limbs healthy and in one piece.

Life After Life and alternate history
Wash DayBavaria. John Ottis Adams (1885).
Image source

Whilst abroad, I read my first novel by Kate Atkinson: Life After Life. It’s certainly lengthy at 529 hardback pages, and it involves a great deal to take in.

Life After Life plays with the idea of alterate history, in a similar way to Stephen King’s “what if?” treatment of the Kennedy assassination in 11.22.63. Ursula Todd, the child of a wealthy English banker and his domestic-loving wife, Sylvia, is born on a snowy night in 1910. However, her life is short-lived when the umbilical cord strangles her.

What if a doctor were present to save her? What if the circumstances were different? This is what Atkinson cleverly envisages within this novel: in the following chapter, Ursula is born a healthy baby who simply had a near-miss with death.

As Ursula grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a number of ways. However, Atkinson emphasises the significance of minute details in her alterations of history. In this way, Ursula Todd follows life in numerous directions; some tragic, some exciting, and others sorrowful. Possibilites of love are considered and then shattered, career paths contemplated and then doomed to failure, and family relationships go from healthy to distant. However, Atkinson’s treatment of history spreads across a much wider scale. As a novel centred on wartime Britain and, to a lesser extent, Germany, the perpetual alterative history question – what if the Nazi party never gained power? – gains ground.

I’ve always found this concept interesting, although I believe it’s quite hard to encapsulate it successfully in fiction. Life After Life doesn’t fully engage with the theory, and therefore Atkinson appears to skate around it somewhat. Perhaps the subject requires a novel to itself: after all, the causes, events, outcomes and consequences must be considered. Ursula’s close contact with Hitler and his “henchmen” is certainly interesting and well-researched, but it is never quite revealed if history is changed, and if so, how future unfolds as a result. 

Life After Life is greatly inventive, personal and poignant. I’d say that Atkinson’s greatest strength is her depiction of the Todd family: I’ll surely remember the eccentric aunt, despised brother, and admired father. I imagine that many readers admire the quaint rural England setting, although as an inhabitant of such an area myself, it felt a little too overdone at times.

I’ll be sure to find some other novels by Kate Atkinson – do comment if you have any to recommend!


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