Thursday, June 20, 2013

He Doesn’t Row

February 1910: Ursula Todd dies before she is even born. February 1910: Ursula Todd is born. And thus begins Kate Atkinson’s novel, Life After Life. 

The facts are these: Ursula Todd is born on a cold, snowy night in 1910. She lives until she dies and then she is born again on a cold, snowy night in 1910. She dies at age five from drowning. She dies at age eight from the Spanish Influenza. She dies at age 30 during the London Blitz. As she lives again and again, the question remains – can Ursula have any effect on her future?

At some points, it seems her other lives are leaving a sort of imprint on her current life. Physicist R. Lutece describes this phenomenon in Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel (1889). “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories when none exist.” Although what is happening to Ursula cannot truthfully be described as time-traveling, I believe the sentiment still applies. For Ursula, avoiding a death from an alternative life manifests itself as a gnawing in the pit of her stomach or a double take at a passing stranger. She can sense something is wrong, but cannot fully grasp why.  It is because those deaths she suffered are not “past” lives. They are not her deaths.  They are wholly “other.” She is attempting to grapple with memories that are not actually there. Within the novel, Ursula’s therapist compares it to a palimpsest; that is, a manuscript page from which the text has been scraped off. And, although it can be used again, the former lettering can still be faintly seen beneath the new. 

This idea of “many-worlds” is the aspect of the novel I enjoyed the most. As Ursula lived and died, the reader has the opportunity to examine variables and constants across the different timelines.  Ursula unconsciously makes decisions that affect the entire outcome of her life. A stolen kiss on her 16th birthday leads to a lifetime of shame and abuse. Rebuffing those advances means the girl next door avoids being murdered. Like a Victorian thaumatrope, you are led to believe you are seeing the constant image of a bird in a cage, when in fact; it’s merely an optical illusion – a variable. Ursula’s marriage to an abusive man is not a fixed point in her life; the murder doesn’t have to happen. It’s the separate images of a bird and a cage that are constant. The kiss is a recurring moment (i.e. a fixed point) of her life. How she handles it changes the course of her lives and the lives of those around her.

It’s an incredibly ambitious novel and it can be challenging to keep up with all of Ursula’s lives.  Overall, I did like Life After Life. There are a few lengthy sections filled with expert detail. Atkinson had no problem capturing war ravaged London. Mostly, I appreciated that the novel offered me a lot to think about in terms of life (obviously) and the inherent structure of novels. I see this book as a mosaic. It’s made up of similar, yet mismatching pieces that come together to make one complete image (the novel). However, even though that image is complete, it’s not exact. If you look too closely, the complete image disappears and you start to see the novel for what it actually is – fragments of multiple wholes. In an interview, Atkinson said this about Ursula’s repeating lives, “there is no end to the novel in my mind. There is an infinite number of ‘Snow’ chapters and attempts on her part.” Bird or cage, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

Although there really is no other book like this, here are a few that deal with similar topics:

For another novel set in World War II with a sense of displacement in time, try Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

If you really want a narrative challenge, check out To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

For a contemporary war novel, try Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain.

 ~Meredith T.


  1. Wow...and an incredibly ambitious review here as well. You've condensed what appears to be an exceedingly complex plot and structure into an understandable description. Spot on re Kurt Vonnegut also. Question, who is the "He" in the title of this review and what does it mean that he doesn't row?

    1. “He doesn’t row” refers to another work that shares similar themes with Life After Life. The character in question (he) sits in a rowboat with two others. When one comments that the man isn’t rowing, the other replies, “No, he doesn’t row.” “He doesn’t row?” the first questions. (which is to say, he won’t row). The other quickly clarifies with “No, he DOESN’T row.” In fact, these three characters have lived this situation hundreds of times (operating under the multiverse theory). In every instance, no matter how varied the timeline is, at this point the man doesn’t row. It is a constant. He DOESN’T row, meaning, he never rows.