You are born – hopefully not too strenuous a process for you. You grow up – living through various trials and joys and books and exams and pains of all sorts. You near the end, though you may not be old when the end comes – and you die. Again, hopefully not too strenuous a process for you.
But plenty of people believe the end is not the end. That you get a second chance; reincarnation. In the case with the life of Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life, reincarnation means a re-fleshing into the same life (small note for spoilers ahead).
Ursula, the ‘little bear’ is born countless times on a snowy February in 1910. She grows up in a charming English home called Fox Corner, plays with her variously boisterous and sweet and confiding siblings, lives through both World War One (though it has less impact on her) and World War Two (which has – several times – a literal impact on her), and, at some point along the way she dies. Over and over again. Sometimes with drama, such as her first death at her moment of birth. Sometimes the going is peaceful. Sometimes harrowing – London in the Blitz. Germany too. After each death comes the black bat of darkness, followed by an image of the snow that fell on her very first birthday.
There is reference made to the ouroboros. But throughout these reiterations of life, there is not the sense of smoothness implied in the image of the snake that eats its tail. At least not for the solidly enduring Ursula: she is not privy to the full story. She has only snippets, dreams, omens, to guide her. She makes mistakes. Lives that shatter and fragment too early. Cruelties relived when they could be avoided. I started to wonder if the ouroboros referred not to her fate, but to that of the reader, rotating at a remove through all the lives lived. Though, of course, all books must end and none infinite, so maybe my analogy falls apart.
While I was disappointed with the lack of philosophical depth and the occasionally obvious turns – World War Two+what is effectively time travel = you guessed it: Let’s Kill Hitler – the story was so seamlessly put together that it was hard to object too much. All in all, Life After Life was in many ways the perfect book for my Hamilton-Edinburgh commute. Non-nonsense, fast-paced and written, in the way all of Atkinson’s books seem to be written, with an eye to the reader and a competent grip on the story, like a person driving with one hand on the wheel, another on the dog that is lolling its head out of the window gazing at the fascinating scenery, threatening to tumble out.