Driving 1250 miles south on I-5 in three days with my daughter and her forty pound (and not always friendly) dog felt just as you might imagine — long, hot and dull. There’s no romance when you’re stuck on the interstate with no opportunities for serendipity or even random stops. Really, we just needed to get from Seattle to San Diego, Point A to Point B. We did have some time for heart-to-heart talks, had some funny experiences and were delighted to make it to our destination without any major mishaps. We planned to sing along with the radio, really belt it, because we could. Instead, we spent most of our drive time listening to the audio version of Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. What a lucky choice! The audio version that I picked up at Elliott Bay Books the day before we hit the road features a British actress, Fenella Woolgar, reading the entire novel — all twelve discs. And she reads it so well — different inflections for each character, convincing bits in German and French, lovely British accent throughout (except for the one American character whose accent immediately predisposed me to dislike him, and rightly so.)
The book begins with a dramatic scene: a young woman enters a restaurant in Munich, joins a table at the far end of the room where the man she’s looking for is seated, along with his usual “cohorts and toadies,” and a glamorous woman she doesn’t recognize — an actress and a Berliner, she decides. Delicious cakes and pastries fill the table, waiters rush around. There is stilted conversation. Rain is mentioned. The woman, Ursula, reaches into her heavy bag for a lace monogrammed handkerchief to dab the pastry crumbs off her lips, then pulls out a heavy gun and shoots the man point-blank. The man is Adolf Hitler. The date is November 1930.
The next scene opens on February 11, 1910, amidst a wild British snowstorm. A birth, Ursula’s we find out soon enough. And not an easy birth. The cord wrapped around the baby’s neck, the doctor didn’t make it in time. She dies. But in the next seen, we get another version of the same birth. The doctor arrives in the nick of time and cuts the cord from around the baby’s neck. There’s talk of God wanting the baby back, talk of the mother being tested, found not wanting. The baby survives its birth. This time. And so begins the story of Ursula’s life after life. Her childhood years always begin with snow. The freak snowstorm on the day of her birth and each time the story begins, Ursula lives a little bit longer. When she lives to see her sixteenth birthday, something dreadful happens that profoundly affects her life. That life, that is. At some point, Ursula begins to have premonitions of bad things about to happen. She tries to change fate. Occasionally, she succeeds. Her family and friends believe she has a kind of sixth sense. As readers, we sometimes wish for Ursula’s life to end, when she’s headed down a particularly perilous path. It’s a relief, then, when darkness falls. Of course, all along we know she’s headed for that coffee shop in Munich and we want her to get there.
The ideas in Life After Life are not new. It’s human nature to ponder what would happen if this and not that had happened to change the course of history. If different choices were made, what then?
Just last year I read Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63, about time travel and the Kennedy assassination, the protagonist in that novel travels back to that infamous day and tries to prevent the assassin from pulling the trigger. So what makes Kate Atkinson’s novel so delicious? The writing, of course. As I drove down I-5, I surrendered to the story every time. I loved the way Atkinson parsed out the details of Ursula’s lives, and the lives of her parents, aunt, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends. They all lived through World War I, were each profoundly affected by it. And then comes another war. When the story flashes forward to the end of World War II, 1947, things are very grim for Ursula.
The electricity went off and she fumbled for the candle on the mantelpiece. Could it get any worse? Ursula took the candle and the whisky bottle to bed, climbed under the covers, still in her coat. She was so tired. . . . The flame on the little Radiant fire quivered alarmingly. Would it be so very bad? ‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain.’ There were worse ways, Auschwitz, Treblinka. . . . The flame on the Radiant flickered and died. The pilot light too. She wondered when the gas would come back on. If the smell would wake her . . . Ursula closed her eyes. . . . She really was so very, very tired. Darkness began to fall.
I am so pleased when the next chapter begins again with Snow, Ursula’s birth all over again — so many possibilities. I know she’s going to get it right one of these times. She will keep her appointment in Munich.
Finally we arrive in San Diego, unpack more than a dozen boxes, assemble two bookshelves and make our way halfway through a lovely bottle of California Cabernet, which we buy solely because, in one life, Ursula is a drinker and her description of drinking red wine, like sinking into a warm bath makes us want some. Then I realize what a perfect read LIfe After Life has been for this road trip. After all, it’s the beginning of a new chapter for my daughter here in San Diego. She has had other chapters, in Washington D.C., graduate school in New York, and now here she is beginning again in Southern California. Lovely. New places and new experiences, new people to meet and relationships to build. A new life. And after the ten-month internship in this sunny California place? After this, perhaps — Snow!