In Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life," Ursula Todd is born in the British countryside in 1910 - and dies almost immediately, umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, "a helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky."
No matter. She's born again - and again and again and again. Each time, snow falls ("She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring. ") Each time, she adjusts to avoid death for a little while, or maybe life adjusts itself around this second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance.
Two things are implicit in such a setup: a warning (some repetition lies ahead) and a promise (don't worry, I know what I'm doing, and you won't be bored). The gifted Atkinson, best known for the excellent suspense series that began with "Case Histories," is clever and talented enough to build on this shifting foundation, and she tells the story of Ursula's odd existence with enough twists and revelations to keep the reader guessing.
She's so adept at propelling us through this hefty novel, which flits through both World Wars and beyond, that we're able to temporarily overlook the first two pages, in which Ursula employs the most egregious cliche available to alternative histories.
Death is capricious in Atkinson's hands. "One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot," she writes. That's one of the jolts of "Life After Life": Ursula's deaths are so tragically preventable. If only her mother had paid more attention to her children at the seashore. If only Ursula's unpleasant older brother, Maurice, hadn't thrown her doll onto the icy roof. If only the scullery maid hadn't traveled to London to celebrate the end of The War to End All Wars with her sweetheart and returned home infected with Spanish flu. "If only" reverberates through the book the way pangs of regret surface when we look back and wish we'd made different choices. We can't. But Ursula, the "odd one out" in the Todd clan, can.
"Life After Life" isn't science fiction; it's ambitious literary fiction exploring the nature of destiny and what we might do to change it if we could. But even fantasy has to make sense on its own terms, and the book falls short of that goal.
Still, there's much to treasure here. "Life was going on. A thing of beauty," Ursula notes at one point, just before the darkness takes her.
Atkinson's novel unearths the joy in the simple passing of our days.