On 11 February 1910, as the snow settles thickly, a baby is born and dies, strangled by her umbilical cord. The baby is unable to take one breath, almost aware of this waste of her own life. Instead, she falls into darkness, a bird dropping from the sky. But we turn a page and life seizes another chance, repeatedly, until finally a doctor is able to make it through the snow and free the windpipe. The baby lives and is named Ursula Todd, her mother’s little bear. So begins a series of rebirths, second, third, fourth chances, as well as repeated deaths. Some are less easy to avoid than others, more prone to recur, but Ursula determinedly, even occasionally humourously (albeit with a dark humour), tries again and again to find a way on.
Life After Life takes us through two world wars. So many people are damaged or lost. It’s as if Ursula feels driven to survive for their sake. But although Ursula does attain a level of awareness of these rebirths, the mystery of this expert and remarkable novel is how we attempt to fathom their purpose. What is it for? What is Ursula supposed to do? And if we were also conscious of more chances in life, what would we do? How far does our responsibility for others stretch?
Ursula’s lives follow a succession of journeys, even into Hitler’s inner sanctum, and the most memorable are set against a backdrop of London in the Blitz. The vividness of the prose and imagery as Ursula attempts to make sense of the horror happening around her and to her is shocking. It’s all the more powerful because we are aware that Ursula may have to repeat deaths over and over again. Our consciousness is something Ursula must learn in the hardest of ways.
In addition to Ursula herself, characters such as her parents Sylvie and Hugh stand out, as does Hugh’s sister Izzie, Ursula’s brother Teddy (another of Sylvie’s little bears), and others of the men and women that impact on Ursula’s life for good or bad, acting out vivid and memorable cameos. It’s an interesting game to look out for changes in other lives as well as slight differences in the historical backdrop. It can be like comparing two images in a puzzle book for little changes. They might be slight but they do make one wonder if it’s not just Ursula who is experiencing this deja vu made real.
Life After Life is a very clever book. Its sequence of layers, levels and clues makes for an extremely rewarding and very rich read. Its leading character Ursula is a fascinating creation. Reliving her life time after time, seeking to fix ‘mistakes’, she – as do we – questions the nature of a good life, fate, responsibility, cruelty and purpose, sometimes looking for answers in philosophy and literature. This is a book full of references to big thoughts. The fact that these lives play out against a backdrop of world wars intensifies Ursula’s determination. What is very plain, though, is that life is never easy, relationships are always difficult, someone will always get hurt, however many times you are able to live it.
The cleverness did distance me from Ursula to a degree. I found it difficult to mourn or rejoice because I could never be sure what was truth and what was fixed. But there is treasure here and the further you dig the more you’ll find and want to keep. Most deservedly, Life After Life will be one of the most talked about books of 2013.