Sunday, April 28, 2013
LIFE AFTER LIFE
I just finished reading Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE (Little, Brown, 2013). And even though it's being reviewed everywhere, including in today's New York Times Book Review, I have thoughts about it too, and isn't sharing thoughts what blogs are for?
I'd previously read Atkinson's STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, and found it weirdly compelling, and I was fascinated by an early review of the current book, so I went to an uptown Barnes & Noble in New York on April 17th to hear the author read an excerpt of it and to get my newly-purchased copy signed by her. After the reading, I actually had a dialogue with her that lasted perhaps 20 seconds. I told her as she signed my book that I had a feeling she'd be incredibly charming, and that I'd been right. She replied, "I'm not really that charming. I'm going to go back to my hotel room and - " and here she hissed and made a feral gesture with both hands, like a lion extending his claws. We both laughed, and I said, "Yes, but we [the audience] don't know that!" Yes, Kate Atkinson and I shared a moment.
The fact is that Atkinson was (is) incredibly charming. Someone asked her at the reading if LIFE AFTER LIFE was about reincarnation, and she furrowed her brow and answered that she never knows what to say when people ask her that, because after all, isn't the essence of reincarnation coming back as someone else? Which led her to share with us, in her delightful dotty/brilliant style, that her mother had died in December, which had prompted Atkinson's young granddaughter to ask, "If Nanny comes back as an animal, can we keep her as a pet?" and to confess that she herself found that prospect absolutely terrifying (as a result, Atkinson seemed to hint, not of her own fear of reincarnation, but of her fear of her mother in any form). Evidently this then led to a family discussion of reincarnation, during which that same granddaughter (or possibly a different one?) announced that if she could come back, she would like to do so as chicken pox, "because then I'd always be warm, and I'd always have friends." And to me, it seemed perfectly right for Atkinson to have exactly that kind of granddaughter.
So, about the book. It is not, as Atkinson accurately pointed out, about reincarnation, because although Ursula Todd does repeatedly return to life after she dies, it's always as herself, and always into the same circumstances, although she never ends up quite the same twice. It's disorienting at first to read of a baby who dies immediately after her birth in 1911, strangled by her umbilical cord because the doctor couldn't get there in time, only to next see her rescued from that same circumstance by that same doctor, who this time managed to beat the snowstorm. But you get used to this sort of time travel after a while, and after a longer while, you begin to discern a pattern. Each time Ursula survives an incident that had previously killed her, a fog lifts for her infinitesimally. Little Ursula, a child at Fox Corner again and again, doesn't know about any of her past experiences, but she eventually begins to recognize events and places that she has no reason to recognize; to develop a sixth sense about people and neighborhoods and days like Armistice Day in 1918; to suffer inexplicable terrors at certain junctures, that cause her to act in slightly different ways than she might otherwise have. So, although at first Ursula stumbles through her life as blindsided and infuriated and tortured by circumstances as the rest of us, she is very, very slowly given opportunities to learn. To, in Atkinson's words, "get it right."
Once, on her sixteenth birthday, Ursula, feeling completely powerless, is raped in her own house by her older brother's visiting friend. Her mother, unaccountably, blames her and ceases to love her, and Ursula 's ensuing loss of self-respect leads her later in that particular life into alcoholism and an abusive marriage. On her next sixteenth birthday, Ursula stops the would-be rapist in his tracks by punching and kicking him. Never again does she have a drinking problem. Never again does she subject herself to emotional or physical abuse.
Time and again, Ursula lives through waking nightmares - in particular, the London Blitz, which mars each of her adult lives no matter what she's done in the previous ones. But if it weren't for the
nightly bombing raids and her eventual role as a witness to them, Ursula would never have learned of her own courage, stamina, power. She would never have been able to finally carry out the deed for which she ultimately realizes she had been born.
TIME AFTER TIME is prefaced by quotes from Nietzsche, Plato, and one Edward Beresford Todd, the latter being Ursula's beloved, irreplaceable younger brother, who says: "What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?" Yes. It would be. It is. As wonderful as it is to learn that an assassination can be committed not out of hatred and rage, but out of self-sacrifice and love. As wonderful as it is to come to know Ursula and to watch her complete her circle.