Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Random yet far-ranging

Sylvie's knowledge, like Izzie's, was random yet far-ranging, "the sign that one has acquired one's learning from novels, rather than an education," according to Sylvie.

(I love that aphorism. Because it's my knowledge, too. And while I've had an education, it's clear that I hold novels in higher esteem.)

Would you, if you could, kill Hitler, before his rise to power, to prevent later atrocities? Several works of fiction have explored this moral quandary (though, there's not much quandary about it; most people absolutely would, and they don't think much of it); numerous time travel stories and alternate histories cover this territory.

Kate Atkinson in Life after Life takes a wholly original approach. Rather than engage in a temporal paradox or extrapolate the after effects of a dead Hitler, she explores potential past realities, one (or two) of which might've led to this event.

Ursula lives many, many lives, some more tragic than others. These are lives lived in parallel. It's kind of Groundhog Day but on a much grander scale. There is no awareness, no cumulative effect, no loop to be broken. It's just one relentless life after another. These are not successive lives, not reincarnations. Rather it is something closer to the concept of eternal return. Indeed in one life (or several, I guess), Ursula, still a child, discusses this with her psychiatrist and she learns from him amor fati.

My own worldview leads me to think of Ursula's experience in terms of a multiverse, with the universes so tightly stacked that one reality occasionally bleeds into others, giving Ursula that déjà vu feeling in many situations, although she knows that situation hasn't happened "before." On several occasions she experiences a kind of dread, like the shadow of another life passing through her.

It's a helluva conceit, but executed superbly.

Before you get the wrong idea, I should make it clear that Life after Life is about as science fictiony as The Time-Traveller's Wife. That is, not at all. This is drama. You may want to call it historical fiction, given that's it set in and around London over the first half of the twentieth century. The Blitz figures prominently.

Also, Hitler does not. It starts and more or less ends with him, but there's not much of him in-between. So forget Hitler. This is not a political intrigue. The whole point of him is to drive home the concept I've tried to explain above. That is, to convince you that the novel's premise is not trivial; every action has consequences, and they can be worldstage, as well as gut-wrenching.

So Ursula lives many lives, all of them at least slightly different, some vastly so. The first life we read is barely seconds long, if that. But one life sees her well into middle age. One assumes there are several more lives lived and untold here.

The bedroom was a terrible mess, clothes everywhere, satin petticoats, crêpe de Chine nightdresses, silk stockings, partnerless shoes lying abandoned on the carpet, a dusting of Coty power over everything. "You can try things on if you want," Izzie said carelessly. "Although you're rather small compared to me. Jolie et petite." Ursula declined, fearing enchantment. They were the kind of clothes that might turn you into someone else.

One life in particular had me reading far past my bedtime, and sobbing into my pillow. Ngah! All those lives, and she keeps dying.

If you've ever read Kate Atkinson you'll know she treads some morbid territory. Although death and disaster touch ordinary people, Atkinson has an extraordinary touch. Despite the violence of the world(s) Ursula lives in, this novel is gentle, and kind to her, and lovely. Fluid. It depicts sibling relationships in particular astutely. It also feels British, whatever that means — cool? stoic? — reminding me of A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book but less academic and more heartfelt. I came across only one Scottishism I had to look up ("thrawn"), in contrast to my one-dictionary-look-up-per-page average for other Atkinson novels.

This novel is pretty spectacular, and of all the novels I've read, this is one I'd recommend to my mother (a non-reader) (if I could talk her though/past the multiple lives concept), which is to say: inventive as it is structurally, the stories it tells are grounded and traditional and whole. Much as I'm a fan of Jackson Brodie (in books and on TV), I'd just as soon give him up if Atkinson would deliver another volume of Ursula's lives.

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