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An ingenious, but sometimes irritating book
on 11 May 2017
A little confusing at first, but one soon gets the idea: this is telling the several lives of Ursula Todd – each life being cut short by her death, and starting all over again until she meets a different kind of death. That’s quite an ingenious idea, though I have to say that in the end, apart from the ingenuity, I could not see the point of it. Ursula does not learn anything from her previous lives and does not try to avoid situations such as those that led to her deaths. She does frequently have a sense of déja vu, when she remembers with terror some of the moments before her previous deaths; and in one of her lives she is sent to a psychiatrist in the hope that he could cure her of her anxieties. The psychiatrist is interested in Buddhism and mutters something about reincarnation; and once in a while some of the characters muse about how differently things would have turned out if some event had or had not happened. These occasional reflections are meant to be keys to the idea behind the book. Even so, the novel just seems to be made up of some dozen novellas.
The effect of this device is that the reader will wonder all the time how each life is going to end. For me the result was that, for all the quality of the writing, whether humorous or terrifying, I was initially somewhat impatient reading about what happened before each death. Not always, though, especially not in the later, longer chapters (there is a great variety in length) when the scenes in Ursula’s life, unrelated to the deaths at the end, are so well done that I would forget thinking about the inevitable end.
Kate Atkinson skilfully evokes the changing atmosphere of England between 1910, when Ursula was born and 1967 when she met the last of her deaths. (I make it twelve or possibly thirteen deaths altogether.) Atkinson is particularly good at evoking what England was like during the two World Wars and their after-effects. A major part of the novel is set in London during the air raids of the 1940s, with lengthy descriptions of grimly graphic scenes. They are so vividly described that one imagines Kate Atkinson must have experienced such raids; but she was born six years after the end of the Second World War; and she tells us in an Epilogue how she learnt what it was like.
There are equally vivid descriptions of air raids on Berlin, for Ursula also spent part of one of her lives in Nazi Germany. She had visited it in 1933 during what was to be a year abroad (though elsewhere, near the end of the book, her visit was in 1930, before Hitler came to power; and in that version of her life she would really have changed the course of world history). The daughter of the Bavarian family where she lodged in 1933 had been at Kindergarten with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; and Ursula was frequently up in Berchtesgaden and observed Hitler’s way of life there. In that life Ursula married a German, took German citizenship and had a little daughter. In that life, she is in Germany all through the war.
The sequence of the deaths is, disconcertingly to me, not chronological. The first death recorded is in 1930, when Ursula is 20 years old; this is followed by the earliest four deaths, which are between 1910 and 1918, when she was still a child. In those chapters we get little idea of what Ursula (unlike her hyperactive elder brother Maurice who will grow up to be a rather dislikeable character) was like. The fifth death suddenly takes us to 1947; then it’s 1923, and so on. In some lives, terrible and/or sad things happen to Ursula: in one life, she has a quite horrendous marriage to a violently abusive man. Dreadful things happen also to other characters in the book. A few of them die in one of Ursula’s lives, but are still alive in another, later, life of hers.
One of the features of the novel are the many quotations from literature.
The book is very long. As in her earlier novel, “Behind the Scenes in the Museum” (see my Amazon review), there is far too large a cast of characters whom one tries to remember, although many of them turn out to be quite marginal; and even some of those who play a bigger role are not really developed as characters. But Ursula’s father, Hugh, is a lovely man; while her bourgeois mother, Sylvie, becomes steadily less likeable as the story proceeds. Another vivid character is that of Ursula’s modern and irresponsible aunt Izzie.