Ursula Todd dies at the moment of her birth, strangled by a cord around her neck. She dies in the cellar of a London house, taking shelter from an air raid during the Blitz. She dies falling from a window as a child. She dies in the Spanish flu epidemic. And each time she finds herself back on that cold, snowy February day in 1910, waiting to be born again and to see whether the tiniest shift of chance or design can change her future. Kate Atkinson’s much-admired novel poses the question: what if we could live over and over again, until we were able to design our lives in such a way as to create the best possible future, not just for ourselves, but for the world?
In all the lives where she survives, Ursula enjoys a sun-kissed, Merchant-Ivory kind of childhood: cricket whites, tennis and tea on the lawn. Her brothers and sister – insufferable Maurice, sympathetic Pamela, lovable Teddy and little Jimmy – offer playmates of a sort, although Ursula is always an introspective, rather solitary child, troubled by premonitions and déjà-vu. In all the lives where she survives, she witnesses the psychological and physical destruction of the First World War and the pain of the Second World War, although her experiences of the latter take radically different paths. And presently, having lived enough lives to understand the power of a twitch upon the thread at the right moment, Ursula begins to formulate a goal, a purpose, to give her life the greatest possible impact.
Much has been written about this book and I think the gushing praise counts against it in a way. Despite some ruthlessly brutal scenes set in the Blitz, I didn’t find it as intensely moving and emotional as the blurb on the cover promised: I thought it extremely clever, of course, and it’s very humane and sensitive but it didn’t leave me shredded and weeping in a corner, which I’d half-expected. Ursula herself is a thoughtful character, rather matter-of-fact, and the inevitability of her rebirth blunted some of the drama for me. Her various deaths seemed less like tragedies and more like intellectual experiments. Nevertheless, the path that Atkinson takes is daring and very, very smart, speculating on how a tiny decision by one person can set off (or stop) a chain of events that will resonate on a much wider scale. Essentially this is a cross between Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life.
I really don’t want to write any more about the book because discovery is one of its main charms, but I would definitely recommend you seek it out if you like thought-provoking novels that turn an unflinching eye on the past. This is the first novel I’ve read by Atkinson – I had her short-story collection, Not the End of the World, for Christmas many moons ago – and I’m certainly intrigued by her intelligent and probing take on things. I’ll be looking out for more of her books.