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Review: Kate Atkinson layers stories of World War II in 'Life After Life'

Published Apr. 19, 2013

We all wonder at some time or another how our lives might have been different if we could go back and change one day, one moment. In Kate Atkinson's new novel, Ursula Todd gets to find out — over and over again.

I've loved all of Atkinson's novels, from Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995) to Started Early, Took My Dog (2010). But Life After Life is flat-out magnificent, a virtuoso performance that had me slowing down in the last chapters because I didn't want it to end — then speeding back up because I had to know what would happen. And when I was done, I wanted to start all over again. (On Tuesday, it was one of six novels shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Women's Prize.)

The premise of Life After Life is less reincarnation, in which souls move on to new bodies and lives, than Groundhog Day — except that Ursula lives her whole life over, not just a day. And her awareness of that process is incomplete, slow growing, often dismissed as moments of deja vu or fragments of dream. Yet with each go-round, the most subtle changes have surprising consequences.

Why does her life keep repeating? Atkinson tantalizes us with the book's first chapter, a page and a half long and set in 1930. A 20-year-old Ursula enters a Munich cafe and is welcomed as a friend by a charismatic man surrounded by a fawning entourage. She eats some pastry, then draws a revolver from her bag.

" 'Fuhrer,' she said, breaking the spell. 'Fur Sie.'

"Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.

"Ursula pulled the trigger.

"Darkness fell."

That darkness will fall over and over again. In the next, even briefer chapter, the first of eleven titled "Snow" to cue us that her life is beginning again, Ursula dies before she draws her first breath. Her mother, Sylvie, is at the family's country home during a snowstorm when she goes into labor. Her husband is away, neither the midwife nor the doctor can get there, and Sylvie's only help, a 14-year-old maid, is useless when Ursula is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

But a page later, in the second "Snow," the doctor gets there in time to deliver a "bonny, bouncing baby girl." Born in 1910, Ursula will be the middle child of five brought up by "beautiful, clever and somewhat contrary" Sylvie and her husband, Hugh. He is a banker as well as an affectionate father, so growing up at Fox Corner is something of an idyll, even when Hugh goes off to fight in the Great War.

Even so, Ursula dies — she drowns, she falls off a roof, she dies of Spanish influenza (twice), all before even making it to adulthood. But as Atkinson brings her through those cycles, she is bringing to life for us Ursula's world, England between the wars and then, in the book's expansive heart, during World War II.

That war, of course, brings plenty of other opportunities for Ursula to die. But Life After Life is the farthest thing from a morbid book — it is a rich, poignant, heartbreaking and hilarious celebration of living.

Atkinson has always created memorable, believable characters, and Life After Life teems with them. Ursula is, in every version of herself, engaging — smart, practical, quietly brave, self-effacing but independent. The Todd family is especially vivid, including Sylvie and Hugh, Hugh's wild sister Izzie and Ursula's siblings: obnoxious Maurice, reliably supportive Pamela, rambunctious Jimmy and — everyone's most beloved — bright and tenderhearted Teddy. Like Ursula's, their fates shift as their lives, too, are relived, but the cores of their characters remain intact.

The Todds are just part of a much larger cast, which expands with each version of Ursula's life. In one spin of the wheel, she visits Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler at Berghof, their vacation home in the Alps; in other lives, she works in London during the Blitz with a troop of stalwart volunteers who, when the bombs fall, rescue the injured from the rubble, comfort the dying and retrieve the dead. Those London chapters, brimming with horror and heroism, are simply breathtaking.

Another of Atkinson's trademarks is the multilayered, complex plot full of startling twists. Life After Life is a turbo-charged version of that, but I don't want to portray it as a dry puzzle book that requires the reader to make notes and connect every dot, or an esoteric exercise in fictional technique.

Life After Life has often stunningly beautiful prose, wry humor and heart-wrenching emotion, deeply human characters and enduring mysteries, and, above all, brilliant storytelling that will propel you through every one of Ursula's lives. Don't let your current life go by without reading it.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

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