Rating: 3 stars
It’s a clever device, enabling a character to have repeated goes at life, returning them each time to the start, giving them that sense of déjà vu, that sense of premonition, that enables them to dodge the previous death on the next go around until they finally get life on the right track.
Is Ursula replaying her life? Is she travelling along the tangled string of her personal continuum, jumping from future to past and then moving forward again? Is she a time traveller, or is she a parallel version of herself, with a sense of each version’s existence that allows her to feel the point where she diverges?
By the time of the Spanish Flu that repeatedly does for three of the characters, despite serial returnee Ursula’s best premonitory efforts, it felt like Atkinson was as weary of the task she’d given herself as I was of reading it. It made me laugh, that “Darkness, and so on.” Yes, come on, get past this loop of misery.
With each death, even though I knew it would be made good from the next relaunch, it felt more depressingly inevitable. At the start, I liked Ursula. I liked some members of her family. I didn’t like the way she and those likeable members of her family kept experiencing such lonely deaths. But I suppose that’s the thing about death – it is lonely. Nobody experiences it with us.
There was something wistful about the book. The way in which bad things kept happening – war, ‘flu, murdered children, rape, suicide, domestic abuse – and how the family bottled it all up and soldiered on. In the middle of it, Ursula, carrying her accumulated knowledge, the fate of her family’s happiness. As Dr Kellet says, “a very heavy burden for a little girl.”
It gave me a similar feeling to the one I had reading Atonement. I felt like an observer, not really allowed intimacy with the characters, even though I was seeing intimate things from their lives. None of the characters seemed particularly honest with themselves or each other. It’s a really well written, clever book, but Atkinson seemed more bound up with the plot than with the characters. It didn’t compare well with the warmth of her first novel.
Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, made me angry. How could she leave Ursula so ill-prepared for life? How could she show so little solidarity with her daughters and disapprove of their wish for education and independence? How could she so thoroughly withdraw her love for all but one of her children?
The misery was relentless, overwhelming any glimmers of hope and joy, and I found myself anxiously awaiting each new horror, each new variant on death. And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. It was compelling in its awfulness. Testament to Atkinson’s skill as a writer. I’m impressed by its range, by its inventiveness, but I wish that I loved it like a friend.
Perhaps because I was constantly on edge, waiting for the next death/reincarnation cycle to happen, perhaps because as each cycle happened the cleverness lost its shine, towards the end I no longer cared for any of the characters. Even the twist about why Ursula had to keep reincarnating until she set Life on its correct path underwhelmed me. Of course it wasn’t about killing Hitler. Of course it was about saving Teddy.
In the author note at the end, Atkinson says the book is about being English. If that’s true, we’re a stiff, unresponsive lot, but we’re good in a crisis.