In ‘Life After Life’, Kate Atkinson plays with the concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ or ‘eternal return’ expounded by Nietzsche amongst others; and Atkinson quotes Nietzsche in her preface:
‘What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’….
Ursula, the book’s central character, does indeed return to relive her life many times, each repetition taking a different course and having a different ending. In exploring multiple versions of Ursula’s life, and her sometimes shocking death, Atkinson seems to be reminding us of the fragility of life, and the randomness of history.
However in my view the book would succeed almost as well as a beautifully written, straightforward family saga, without the inclusion of Ursula’s ‘eternal return’. Starting in 1910, it spans the period up to and beyond World War II. In the early chapters Atkinson depicts the almost-idyllic childhood of Ursula and her siblings – a large, comfortably-off Edwardian family living at Home Counties ‘Fox Corner’ with their alternately devoted and grumpy servants. These sections vividly portray the minutiae of domestic life, interpersonal dramas and sibling rivalries with perception and humour.
Later, of course, darker events overtake the family – especially, two World Wars. Atkinson’s unflinching descriptions of the London Blitz are very powerful – not least because of their matter-of-fact tone, and the stoical, low-key courage of the central characters. Characterisation is indeed one of the strengths of this book – Atkinson deftly brings to life even the most minor of characters.
In a recent interview Kate Atkinson said that she believes writing is a craft that has to be learned and practised. In my view, ‘Life After Life’ demonstrates how impressively she has mastered her craft.