Kate Atkinson: Life After Life

Kate Atkinson's new novel is a marvel, a great big confidence trick – but one that invites the reader to take part in the deception. In fact, it is impossible to ignore it. Every time you attempt to lose yourself in the story of Ursula Todd, a child born in affluent and comparatively happy circumstances on 11 February 1910, it simply stops. If this sounds like the quick route to a short book, don't worry: the narrative starts again – and again and again – but each time it takes a different course, its details sometimes radically, sometimes marginally altered, its outcome utterly unpredictable. Atkinson's general rule is that things seem to get better with repetition, but this, her self-undermining novel seems to warn us, is a comfort that is by no means guaranteed, either.

She begins as she means to go on, and at the very beginning. (In fact, even this is not quite true: a brief prologue shows us Ursula in a Munich coffee shop in 1930, assassinating Hitler with her father's old service revolver.) At the start of the novel "proper", Sylvie Todd is giving birth to her third child, her situation given a fairytale atmosphere by the encroaching snow which also, alas, cuts her off from outside help in the form of Dr Fellowes or Mrs Haddock, the midwife. Ursula is stillborn, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, her life unsaved for want of a pair of surgical scissors. Fortunately, though, she is allowed another go at the business of coming into being; in take two, Dr Fellowes makes it, cuts the cord and proceeds to his reward of a cold collation and some homemade piccalilli (it might be too fanciful to notice that even the piccalilli repeats).

Ursula's childhood is to be punctuated with such near-misses: the treacherous undertow of the Cornish sea, icy tiles during a rooftop escapade, the wildfire spread of Spanish flu. Each disaster is confirmed by variations on the phrase "darkness fell", and each new beginning heralded by the tabula rasa that snow brings. Ursula carries within her a vague, dimly apprehended sense of other, semi-lived lives, inexpressible except as impetuous actions – such as when she pushes a housemaid down the stairs to save her from a more terrible ending. That misdemeanour lands her in the office of a psychiatrist who introduces her, in kindly fashion, to the concept of reincarnation and to the roughly opposing theory of amor fati, particularly as espoused by Nietzsche: the acceptance, or even embrace, of one's fate, and the rejection of the idea that anything could, or should, have unfolded differently.

Amor fati is tough to take, of course, if you are a drowning child, or a battered wife, or a shell-shocked young man, or a terrified mother calling for your baby in the rubble of the blitz, all of whom and more besides make up the lives captured, however fleetingly, in Life After Life. It's equally tough if you are a novelist, and put in the powerful but invidious position of controlling what befalls your characters. Are their futures really written in their past? Can you tell what's going to happen to them simply from the way you started them off? Even sustaining your creative engagement could prove tricky: perhaps that's why one catastrophe is tagged with the exhausted words "Darkness, and so on" and why yet another recitation of Ursula's birth is reduced to a mere five lines.

The reader is similarly implicated in this continual manipulation of narrative tension and the suspension of disbelief. We want a story, but what kind of story do we want: something truthful or something soothing, something that ties up loose ends or something that casts us on to a tide of uncertainty, not only about what might happen, but about what already has? In Atkinson's model, we can have all of the above, but where does that leave us, with multiple tall tales clamouring for our attention?

Sometimes, it appears we are being offered a straight choice between happy and unhappy endings. On the one hand, there is Fox Corner, the Todd family home in what is still, although perhaps not for long, a wonderfully bucolic England. There are gin slings and tennis on the lawn and bees buzzing their "summer afternoon lullaby"; there is the reliable accumulation of children – Ursula is the third of five – and servants that are either touchingly steadfast or humorously difficult; there are beloved family dogs and treasured dolls and troublesome aunts whose bad behaviour can just about be absorbed.

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