Book Note: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life was widely reviewed after it was released in 2013, and has been very popular, not least among the women in the two book clubs in Hamilton, Ontario of which I am a member. I presented this book to one of my clubs on January 18, 2016.The heroine of Life after Life, Ursula Todd, lives several different lives. Darkness descends over one life after another, and then the heroine emerges to live a new life, starting with her death the moment she is born. It’s not surprisingly, then, that one of the themes that reviewers have picked up on is the contingency of life. The novel asks what would happen if we could change history, or re-set the clock; we all wonder, sometimes, “what if” we had taken a different path, what would our lives be like.
Ursula dies at her birth in 1910, but then she does
not. But she might well have: the infant
mortality rate in the United Kingdom was 115/1000 in 1910 (compared to 250/1000
in Russia and 250/1000 in Germany). After World War I, everyone breathes a sign
of relief until the Spanish flu comes along, maybe—or maybe not—killing members
of her household.
Life after Life is a political book, though reviewers seem to have neglected that aspect of it. The book opens with Ursula in Germany in 1930, assassinating Hitler. This is something we all wish someone had done: I believe that without Hitler, there would not have been genocide, though there still might have been another war. But in another life Ursula moves to Germany and becomes friendly with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, whom she visits at his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. In this life Atkinson paints Ursula and Eva as innocents, Eva attending to Hitler’s every personal need while Ursula enjoys the view and raises her daughter. To me, this raised questions of moral culpability. Were Eva and Ursula, women without clout or power living in a man’s world, nevertheless obliged to pay attention to politics?In another life Ursula stays in London during the war, working as a civil servant during the day and as an air-raid warden at night. In this life we don’t have to worry about her obligation to affect the world: she is “doing her bit” as a heroic British citizen should, during the Blitz. One question raised at the book club meeting was whether Ursula actually had a core personality, moving as she did among different lives. I assumed she did, and the heroic, hard-working unmarried British woman was it.
Life after Life is also a feminist book, at least for those of us who know what life was like for most women in the Western world until the sea change of second wave feminism gave us rights after about 1970. It read, to me, like a novel about what could have happened to my Scottish mother (born in 1920) and what did happen to many women, and it shows women’s powerlessness until the last third of the twentieth century.
In one of Ursula’s lives a little friend is molested and found dead. If Ursula had been molested and lived, her parents would probably not have believed what had happened to her, unless she accused a lower-class molester, perhaps one of the traumatized veterans of WWI wandering around the country lanes, bothering Ursula’s upper middle-class parents and their friends. In another version of her life her older brother’s college friend rapes her and leaves her pregnant. A woman raped in 1926 by a “respectable” young man would have had little recourse against him. And if she’d had an abortion, she would have risked death or infertility, and disgrace and imprisonment if caught.Nor could she have kept the baby and lived a respectable life: the stigma of being an unmarried mother with very few very few resources would have been too severe. As it happens, in October of 2015 I visited the Foundling Museum in London’s Russell Square, a museum of the first British
|The Foundling Museum|
In yet another life, Ursula meets a charming man and marrieds him. Then he tries to imprison her at home, beats her, and ultimately kills her. In real life, wife-beating was considered a “domestic” matter in most of the Western world up until the 1970s, or even beyond.In her German incarnation, Ursula is also affected by the inferior status of women. When WWII starts she wants to go back to England with her German-born daughter, but she can’t because she has married a German. In those days women did not have independent citizenship; they had to take the citizenship of their husbands. This is still the case in some parts of the world today.
In this second German incarnation Ursula stays in Berlin, rather than being pals with Eva Braun at Berchtesgaden. As Russian soldiers move in at the end of the war, she takes action to save herself and her daughter from rape: as we know from the book, Woman in Berlin, the Russians raped hundreds of thousands of German women and girls—even hidden Jewish women and girls. That these soldiers were starving, frozen, and understandable angry and distraught at the rapes and murders of their own family members by German troops does not excuse the inaction of their officers, who did nothing to restrain them. After a long struggle by feminist lawyers and activists, we now recognize mass rape in warfare as a crime against humanity, if not an aspect of genocide.So, I found Life after Life to be a fascinating political and feminist document. I was left wondering if the entire book was in fact a ruse to explore British and German history, from before WWI to after the defeat of the Germans in WWII, from a woman’s point of view. But even if you don’t see the book the way I did, it’s a fabulous read.