It Might Have Been
by Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur, 2013
I. The Land of Begin Again
“Practice makes perfect,” says Ursula Todd’s mother Sylvie early in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. We’re used to applying that dictum to music, as Sylvie does here, but not to life, which we cannot rehearse, redo, or perfect — this is, of course, the unbearable lightness of it all. Thus the futility, but also the poignancy, of regret: “of all sad words of tongue or pen,” as John Greenleaf Whittier says, “the saddest are these: ‘it might have been.’”
But what if we could turn those “might have beens” into realities? What if in life, as in piano practice, we could start over? What if, as Ursula’s brother Teddy muses, “we had a chance to do it again and again … until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” “I think it would be exhausting,” replies Ursula pragmatically, but Atkinson has set her up: the joke is on Ursula, who is in fact living her life over and over, each time a little differently, each time playing out a “what if” scenario of her own. From this ingenious premise Atkinson develops a multi-faceted picture of English life in the 20th century as she carries her protagonist forward repeatedly from her birth on a snowy February day in 1910.
Ursula’s early lives are tragically short: she dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord; she drowns in the sea; she falls from a window; four times, she’s one of the millions to die in the flu pandemic of 1918. Clearly, part of “getting it right” is just surviving. “Such a fine line,” Sylvie reflects, “between living and dying” — “One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot.” You can win everything in an instant as well. All it takes is a glance just in time: “The girls were sopping wet and tearful. ‘Went out a bit too far,’ the man said. ‘But they’ll be fine’”; “‘Get down from that window, Ursula, for the love of God.’” Or you can take your fate literally into your own hands:
Ursula crept along the carpet runner. Took a quiet breath and then, both hands out in front of her, as if trying to stop a train, she threw herself at the small of Bridget’s back. . . . Bridget went flying, toppling down the stairs in a great flurry of arms and legs. . . .
Practice makes perfect.
Ursula doesn’t know why she does such a “wicked thing”: “all she knew was that she had to do it.” And she did have to, as we understand, to stop Bridget from going to London for the victory celebrations and bringing influenza back with her, as she has every other time.
Getting it right, then, takes not only persistence but courage and a certain ruthlessness. This is clear from the novel’s very first scene, in a Munich café in 1930, in which Ursula gives up her life to address a “what if” that is historical rather than personal: “If Hitler had been killed, before he became Chancellor . . . think how different things would be.” That belated realization lies behind the dramatic opening sequence which culminates in just such a preemptive strike:
‘Führer,’ she said, breaking the spell. ‘Für Sie.’
Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.
Ursula pulled the trigger.
Ursula’s self-sacrificial resolution here is born of her past experiences of the horrors of World War II. The reiterations of Ursula’s traumatic experiences during the Blitz are the best parts of Life After Life: Atkinson is a storyteller with an unerring sense of detail and pacing. “Was that us?” asks Ursula’s neighbour fearfully as the residents of their London house shelter in the cellar. “No, thought Ursula, we would be dead if it had been.” Death is not so quick or so certain, though. When their house is in fact hit, Ursula survives long enough to see the devastation:
A terrible ghost, black eyes in a grey face and wild hair, was clawing at her. “Have you seen my baby?” the ghost said. It took Ursula a few moments to realize that this was no ghost. It was Mrs Appleyard, her face covered in dirt and bomb dust and streaked with blood and tears. “Have you seen my baby?” she said again.
“No,” Ursula whispered, her mouth dry from whatever filth had been falling. She closed her eyes and when she opened them again Mrs Appleyard had disappeared. . . .
Her attention was caught again by Lavinia Nesbit’s dress hanging from the Millers’ picture rail. But it wasn’t Lavinia Nesbit’s dress. A dress didn’t have arms in it. Not sleeves, but arms. With hands. Something on the dress winked at Ursula, a little cat’s eye caught by the crescent moon. The headless, legless body of Lavinia Nesbit herself was hanging from the Millers’ picture rail.
That sight is no less shocking when Ursula encounters it in a subsequent life, this time while she’s working with a rescue squad dispatched to the scene of the strike:
One floor above the man with the yard brush (although there was no floor) a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by these small reminders of domestic life — the kettle still on the stove, the table laid for a supper that would never be eaten — than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized that there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms. The capriciousness of high explosives never ceased to surprise Ursula.
We, of course, are also aware of the capriciousness of fate, of the small turns that have, this time, kept Ursula herself out of the cellar. “What a world of difference there was between dying and nearly dying,” Ursula reflects, but our knowledge that it might so easily have been she (as it was once before) who, dying, asks helplessly after the baby’s fate rather than she who (this time) discovers its body (“a small almost unblemished hand, a small star, revealed itself from the compacted mass”) makes that difference seem slight indeed, even though, as she concludes, it is the only difference that really matters to any of us: “One’s whole life, in fact.”
In one of Atkinson’s deftest moves, an encounter with a handsome young man during a 1933 visit to Germany (“had fate intervened in her life?”) puts Ursula on the other side of the conflict. Her marriage to Jürgen sets up yet what seems still another world of difference — and yet as the war nears its end and the Russians approach Berlin, we get a grim lesson in the equivalence of suffering:
They had lived for months in the cellar, like rats. When the British were bombing by day and the Americans by night there was nothing else for it. . . . They had heard a rumour that in the east people were reduced to eating grass. Lucky for them, Ursula thought, there was no grass in Berlin, just the black skeletal remains of a proud and beautiful city. Was London like this too? It seemed unlikely, yet possible.
This time the falling darkness is welcome.
No matter how many times Ursula’s story multiplies, however, or how much tragedy and suffering its variations contain, it can only gesture towards the scale of human loss caused by the war, as Ursula herself is later hauntingly aware:
The toll of the dead had been her business during the war, the endless stream of figures that represented the blitzed and the bombed passed across her desk to be collated and recorded. They had seemed overwhelming, but the greater figures — the six million dead, the fifty million dead, the numberless infinities of souls — were in a realm beyond comprehension.
It’s partly lack of comprehension that made such numbers possible, of course: the realities themselves defied belief and thus made effective action impossible. “Most people muddled through events,” Ursula thinks to herself, “and only in retrospect realized their significance” — and how else could it be, after all? “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” remarks one of Ursula’s German friends; “If we all had it there would be no history to write about.” Remembering a Nazi parade she and Sylvie attended in 1934, Ursula recalls that as a time “when she had been blind to what was truly afoot.” What if she had seen, had understood, both what was happening and what lay ahead?
That’s the crucial “what if” of Atkinson’s novel: what if we not only knew the future but had a chance to start over and change it? Prescience alone might bring only suffering: “one would always be a Cassandra,” Ursula thinks, “spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.” Again, only we perceive the irony. But when it finally dawns on Ursula that she can go backwards (“a lightning fork cutting open a swollen sky”), a fierce determination supersedes the inexplicable dread that has plagued her in life after life:
She had wasted so much precious time but she had a plan now . . . German, not the Classics . . . The membership of a local shooting club . . . And then, when she was ready, she would have enough to live on while she embedded herself deep in the heart of the beast, from whence she would pluck out the black tumour that was growing there, larger every day.
Thus we are brought full circle, back to that moment of reckoning in a Munich café, only this time, as Ursula pulls the revolver from her bag and levels it at Hitler’s heart, our historical understanding of the reasons that he must die has been given personal resonance (it’s for Teddy, for Mrs Appleyard’s baby, for poor decapitated Lavinia Nesbit, for Ursula’s German daughter Frieda, for Ursula herself). “What if” becomes “if only,” and as Ursula takes on herself the moral obligation for that transformation, the novel also reaches beyond fictional ingenuity towards something more ambitiously metaphysical. It’s this combination of gripping narrative and philosophical aspiration that has presumably earned Life After Life a place on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and has people talking about it also as a potential contender for the Man Booker Prize. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she won at least one of these, even with Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies among her competition.
II. There Would Be No Mistakes This Time
“Practice makes perfect,” says Ursula Todd’s mother Sylvie early in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. We’re used to applying that dictum to music, as Sylvie does here, but not to life, which we cannot rehearse, redo, or perfect — this is, of course, the unbearable lightness of it all. Thus the futility, but also the poignancy, of regret: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen,” to quote John Greenleaf Whittier, “the saddest are these: ‘it might have been.’”
But what if we could turn those “might have beens” into realities? What if in life, as in piano practice, we could start over? What if, as Ursula’s brother Teddy muses, “we had a chance to do it again and again … until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” “I think it would be exhausting,” replies Ursula pragmatically, but Atkinson has set her up: the joke is on Ursula, who is in fact living her life over and over, each time a little differently, each time playing out a “what if” scenario of her own.
It’s an ingenious scheme, one with plenty of narrative interest and, potentially, moral weight as well. And Atkinson, a gifted storyteller with an unerring sense of detail and pacing, does give us a multifaceted and often gripping portrait of 20th-century life as she carries her protagonist forward repeatedly from her birth on a snowy February day in 1910. Atkinson is less successful as a philosophical novelist, however, than she is as a historical one. Fundamental to the notion of practice, after all, is intent: getting it right by accident hardly constitutes learning, and yet for most of Life After Life Ursula is stumbling randomly, rather than proceeding deliberately, through alternative scenarios, and as a result the novel is far more entertaining than it is enlightening.
It’s too much to expect, to be sure, that Ursula be consciously in control of her earliest lives, which are cut tragically short as she dies at birth (strangled by the umbilical cord), drowns in the sea, or falls out a window. (She is an unusually percipient child, though — it’s a rare one-year-old, surely, who recognizes winter “from the first time around.”) In these early lives it’s chance in the form of other people that makes the difference between life or death: “The girls were sopping wet and tearful. ‘Went out a bit too far,’ the man said. ‘But they’ll be fine’”; “‘Get down from that window, Ursula, for the love of God.’” When Ursula does take her fate into her own hands, pushing the maid Bridget down the stairs to keep her from going to the victory celebrations and bringing influenza back with her, as Bridget has four times before, Ursula’s actions are still not calculated: she is driven only by “a great sense of dread.”
When, as a result of this “wicked thing” she’s done, Ursula survives into adulthood, she still has no more than a vague awareness that she’s repeating herself:
She had obscure memories of elation, of falling into darkness, but they belonged to that world of shadows and dreams that was ever-present and yet almost impossible to pin down.
What exactly she is (or we are) to make of her proleptic visions is also difficult to pin down. Sylvie tells her it’s “déjà vu … a trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery.” Bridget tells her it’s the “second sight”: “There were doorways between this world and the next, she said, but only certain people could pass through them.” “Reincarnation,” says Dr. Kellet, the psychiatrist Ursula’s taken to after the incident with Bridget; “Have you heard of that?” Or perhaps, he proposes, “from a more scientific point of view,”
“the part of your brain responsible for memory has a little flaw, a neurological problem that leads you to think that you are repeating experiences. As if something had got stuck.” She wasn’t really dying and being reborn, he said, she just thought she was. Ursula couldn’t see what the difference was. Was she stuck? And if so, where?
That’s a fair question, and it’s the great weakness of the novel that Atkinson doesn’t answer it any better than Ursula can. There’s nothing wrong with Ursula herself that necessitates her eternal recurrence the way that Phil Connors’s personal failings in Groundhog Day condemn him to live the same day over and over until he gets it right. Phil has to reclaim his humanity; Ursula needs no such redemption. She’s not stuck because of missed opportunities or bad decisions either — or, at any rate, not because of any she could reasonably recognize as such in the moment, rather than with hindsight (or second sight). And even if she knew everything we know, she’d have no reason to think she alone could make all the necessary difference, because so often in Atkinson’s inventively contrived variations on Ursula’s life story, it’s other people who turn things in a new direction (“At the last minute fate had intervened in the shape of Mr. Bullock”), or simply chance (“She woke with a start. . . . She hadn’t gassed herself after all then”). When Ursula does take consequential steps herself, she acts either on what she experiences only as instinct or out of that inexplicable dread, neither of which constitutes a reliable means for getting it right.
Ursula’s stuck, then, simply on repeat; what she needs to break the pattern is not a moral breakthrough or a plan of action but a revelation, an epiphany, which she does not earn but only receives. When it comes, it is painfully implausible, for all that it has been laboriously foreshadowed: “Something was riven, broken, a lightning fork cutting open a swollen sky.” With her suspicions confirmed at last, a fierce determination supersedes the inexplicable dread that has plagued Ursula in life after life: “She had wasted so much precious time but she had a plan now.”
We aren’t surprised at the nature of her plan because the novel opens, dramatically, with its culmination in a Munich cafe in 1930:
‘Führer,’ she said, breaking the spell. ‘Für Sie.’
Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.
Ursula pulled the trigger.
By the time this scene recurs near the end of the novel, we understand that for Ursula this is a moment of personal as well as historical reckoning: she has lived more than once through the horrors of World War II. Atkinson’s reiterations of Ursula’s traumatic experiences during the Blitz are the best parts of Life After Life: if anything, each version is more compelling than the last, and their sequencing makes us poignantly aware of the capriciousness of fate, of the small turns that determine, for instance, whether Ursula dies sheltering in a cellar or enters the cellar as a rescuer, whether, dying, she asks helplessly after a baby’s fate — or, searching for survivors, discovers the “compacted mass” of its body. In one of Atkinson’s deftest moves, in one version Ursula marries a German and ends up in a bombed out building in Berlin rather than London; her suffering is the more poignant because it may well be her beloved brother Teddy “up there, dropping bombs on them.”
It’s no wonder, then, that “getting it right” ultimately turns on one particular “what if” scenario: “If Hitler had been killed, before he became Chancellor . . . think how different things would be.” Knowing what she does about the catastrophic scale of loss during the war (“the greater figures — the six million dead, the fifty million dead, the numberless infinities of souls — were in a realm beyond comprehension”), Ursula’s new plan is surely the right one:
when she was ready, she would have enough to live on while she embedded herself deep in the heart of the beast, from whence she would pluck out the black tumour that was growing there, larger every day.
If she can stop him, she should: for once, it’s an obvious step from is to ought. Still, that targeting Hitler as the incarnation of evil makes sense in context doesn’t free it from being a cliché (Hitler is always the example, as Ursula herself acknowledges — “It was war itself that was evil, not men. Although she would make an exception for Hitler”). If anything, indeed, it underscores the novel’s equally clichéd historiography, according to which World War I is a tragic, wasteful mistake but this time “we have right on our side.”
If it’s disappointing that all the novel’s narrative ingenuity leads to a conclusion as predictable as “If you have the chance, kill Hitler,” it’s even more of a problem that Ursula’s cunning plan (“German, not the Classics, . . . The membership of a local shooting club . . . And then, when she was ready . . .”) has blindingly obvious flaws. For one thing, to carry it out she has to start again deliberately — which she does by jumping to her death. That’s brave, maybe even heroic. But how can she be sure — why does Atkinson make sure — that the next time around she retains (and trusts) the knowledge which has come to her so unaccountably this time though never before? Further, given the highly variable experience she has already had and the number of factors outside her personal control, why should she (or we) just accept that she is able to carry out her plan?
Indeed, questions about the novel’s internal logic multiply the more one ponders its details. Why, if killing Hitler constitutes “getting it right,” is the life in which Ursula does that not the end, and then why in our next visit to 1945 does it seem that the war has been fought just as usual? Should we even assume (as I have been doing, and as is strongly implied by the “practice makes perfect” motif) that her lives are sequential, building up to the face-off with Hitler? “Time isn’t circular,” Ursula tells Dr. Kellet after the truth reveals itself to her; “It’s like a . . . palimpsest.” Does this enigmatic remark mean that we are meant to understand her different lives as layers, somehow overlapping, or even contemporaneous? Ursula’s own confusion (“She had been here before. She had never been here before”; “She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice”) would then be the novel’s evasion: she kills Hitler and she doesn’t kill Hitler, she gets it right and she doesn’t get it right. That dodge lets Atkinson off the hook in one key way: a novel in which the protagonist really does kill Hitler abandons realism altogether in favor of alternate history, even science fiction, and that’s not where Atkinson takes us. Her interest is in our world and the many ways we live (and die) in it — not in possible worlds or alternative universes.
It feels like a dodge, though, which is the problem, and it also makes no sense given Ursula’s fulfilled plan to return and take aim at Hitler: plans can only go forward, and they can be devised intelligibly only on the basis of previously acquired information. Life must follow life, then, and the book must be linear, not, as Atkinson said she wanted, “fractal” — or else its putative center cannot hold. There are other inconsistencies and unresolved puzzles, such as the coy suggestion that Sylvie, too, is caught up in her own pattern of recurrences (“‘One must be prepared,’ she muttered. . . . Practice makes perfect”). The result is a novel that is more interesting in concept than it is convincing in practice.
It’s the combination of gripping narrative and philosophical ambition that has presumably earned Life After Life a place on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and has people talking about it also as a potential contender for the Man Booker Prize. But in her effort to go beyond fictional ingenuity towards something more profound, Atkinson’s reach has exceeded her grasp. What if she had played to her strengths as a storyteller and chosen metafiction over metaphysics, rewriting each life as a variation on the novel, exploring what kind of book arises from each twist of fate? Better yet, what if she had simply written in its entirety the great war novel that is so tantalizingly close in the Blitz sections? To be sure, it’s hard to make even material that good into something truly original, but resorting to a gimmick that seems occasionally to weary even Atkinson herself (“Darkness, and so on”) may disable more than it really enables. As it is, I won’t be surprised if she wins a prize for Life After Life, but I will be disappointed, especially with Hilary Mantel’s darkly brilliant Bring Up The Bodies among her competition.
Rohan Maitzen is a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly. She teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and blogs at Novel Readings.