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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Fair
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Kate Atkinson's Life After Life treats its heroine to multiple existences

Each chapter of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is a do-over. In the first chapter, which begins in England in 1910, main character Ursula dies at birth; the next chapter retells Ursula's birth, but she lives and thrives.

Then we start over yet again. Little Ursula survives her birth but dies by falling out a window as she tries to retrieve a dropped doll. Or her sister successfully retrieves the doll, and Ursula dies in the 1918 flu epidemic. She is raped and becomes pregnant, but in a subsequent version she deftly avoids her attacker and goes to secretarial college. Or to university to study languages, which takes her to Germany, where she meets Eva Braun and Hitler. Is this approach for Atkinson's benefit or for ours? Both, it turns out. It's clear Atkinson is enjoying the process, but it makes for excellent reading, too.

Thankfully, Atkinson doesn't start each chapter with Ursula's birth. As we advance through the chapters, she usually picks up the story later and later in Ursula's life. It's as if some version of events finally sticks, allowing us to move along through the story. But not always, just to keep you on your toes.

The longest section of the book concerns Ursula's experiences during the bombing of London in World War II, where she works on a search and rescue team. Ursula and some peripheral characters die several awful deaths (bomb blast, collapsing rubble), but eventually we follow a thread where she survives the war and lives out the rest of her life relatively free from peril.

Throughout Ursula's do-overs, some events are immutable. The doll always gets thrown out the window. World War II always begins. I found myself asking why. These events are known in time-travel literature as "fixed points." But nobody says you have to do it that way. Why does Atkinson feel compelled to honor this rule? Aha, wait, she doesn’t! The last section of the book redoes everything, with all the fixed points up for grabs, too. But in this version, Ursula can remember the other versions, however distantly; her memories are a palimpsest, she tells her doctor.

This Ursula, emboldened by her memories, or by the story underneath the story, sets out on the ultimate do-over, a plan to kill Hitler. Here, I just had to laugh, in a good way. With this device Atkinson seizes control of a classic time-travel trope, while also solving the temporal paradox that plagues writers of traditional time-travel-kill-Hitler stories. (Don't worry that I've spoiled it for you; Atkinson begins the book with the kill-Hitler scene, telegraphing all that she's leading up to.)

The author of several wildly diverse novels, Atkinson is truly brilliant at playing with literary conventions, juggling multiple story lines and tricking the reader. It's clear she enjoys every minute of messing with our heads. Since the result is a brilliant novel, I will happily submit.

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