My friend Dean recently banned the use of the old Yogi Berra saying “deja vu all over again” because it is misused and overused, cliched and redundant. But when I first started reading Kate Atkinson’s kaleidoscopic new novel Life After Life (Little, Brown, digital galley via NetGalley), I kept thinking of it, especially when Ursula Todd’s mother says of her daughter “she has a kind of deja vu all the time.”
Not surprising when Ursula lives and dies multiple times over the course of the novel, which is so much more than a narrative parlor trick, a literary Groundhog Day, or an episode of Dr. Who. (Come to think of it, though, Ursula appears to be a kindred spirit of the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald, who has died at least twice already that viewers know of.)
Ursula first is stillborn on a snowy February night in 1910. A few pages later, the umbilical cord is cut from her neck and she breathes. But her seemingly idyllic Yorkshire childhood is filled with perils: crashing waves, slippery roofs, Spanish flu. “Darkness falls” is Atkinson’s signature cue for Ursula’s demise so another scenario can be played out, events slightly altered and leading down different roads. Not to spoil things, but in one life Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher; in another, she marries a German lawyer and has a child. In that life, she also knows Eva Braun and is caught in the bombing of Berlin. But in other lives, she both dies and survives the London Blitz several times as “darkness falls” over England and Europe. Eventually, the book circles back to its 1930 prologue when an English woman points a gun at Hitler because, of course, if you could go back and “get things right,” you’d want to kill him, too.
The Blitz, as Atkinson says, is the “dark beating heart” of the novel and her set pieces are accordingly horrific as to the damage inflicted on people, animals, birds and buildings. Again and again, the story returns to a subterranean cellar of a house on Argyll Road, where residents shelter during air raids. “It was a maze, a moldy, unpleasant space, full of spiders and beetles, and felt horribly crowded if they were all in there, especially once the Millers’ dog, a shapeless rug of fur called Billy, was dragged reluctantly down the stairs to join them.”
Atkinson surrounds Ursula with a fully realized family: banker father Hugh and faceted mother Sylvie, obnoxious brother Maurice, bohemian aunt Izzie, beloved brother Teddy, reliable sister Pamela. Their fates, too, change, depending on which of Ursula’s lives you’re following at the time. Then there’s the memorable supporting cast, including heroic air raid warden Miss Woolf, married naval officer Crighton, childhood friends Millie, Nancy, Fred, Ben. Like some details — a piece of costume jewelry, or a small white dog, or gold cigarette case — they keep showing up in different plotlines.
You might wonder as to the point of all these pluralities, other than Atkinson stretching the storytelling envelope. Those familiar with her Jackson Brodie crime novels such as Case History or the semi-time-travel tale Human Croquet know she’s already a deft and inventive writer. I’ll read anything she has written. But Life After Life, both playful and poignant, strikes me as her best book yet, “bearing witness” to lives gone before, yet reimagining life’s possibilities. I can’t wait to read it again.