She said, “I am in the future now, and I suppose this book is bearing witness to the past.” Kate Atkinson was born in late December 1951. Growing up in Yorkshire, England she realized that although the adults in her life rarely spoke of it, she had missed something momentous in the decade preceding her birth.
In Life After Life, Atkinson bears witness to WWII, over and over again. Through the multiple lifelines of the story’s heroine, Ursula Todd, we experience the grim, grit-filled nightly bombing of London. We feel the concussive strikes of the Nazi Stabos and street-rattling report of the English guns firing back at the Luftwaffe. We smell the stench of cordite and broken flesh as Ursula sifts through mangled bodies in toppled buildings. She repeatedly meets her end — a bomb blast, a collapsing wall, an abusive husband ill chosen in the fever of war – and she returns. With each return her déjà vu experiences increase in intensity and specificity. She alters the course of her childhood, preventing the demise of friends and family. And she begins to seek a broader solution to the sweeping death and destruction of WWII – what if Adolf Hitler never became Chancellor of Germany?
Ursula has already experienced WWII as a German. In one of her timelines her language skills bring her to 1930s Germany as a teacher. Although the young man she marries turns into a Nazi and prevents her from leaving, leading her to another demise, she begins her next lifeline aware of having befriended the young Eva Braun in a past life. Knowing that she has the means to get close to Hitler, she plans out her life intending to become his assassin.
I am confident that my outline of the plot does not require a spoiler alert. Atkinson knows it too, opening her story with Hitler’s assassination. The heart of the story is in the details, ‘bearing witness’ to the gruesome reality of WWII. Because Ursula feels its impact again and again, we, along with her, grow so bone-achingly weary of the war, the war that seems to drag on forever. And like her we begin to find hope in the possibility of an alternate history.
Through each of her childhoods Ursula is sent to a charming old psychiatrist who regales her with his knowledge of reincarnation. “More a philosopher than psychiatrist,” she says. He is, of course, fascinated by the depth of her déjà vu. She knows, for example, the names of the new neighbors’ children before they ever move in. She knows so much that she quite often has to bite her tongue to keep her fore knowledge a secret. “Time isn’t circular,” she said to Dr. Kellet. “It’s like a palimpsest . . . and memories are sometimes in the future.”
He quotes Corinthians back to her: “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”
And when she insists that she does have charity he responds, “The question is . . . do you have enough.”
We are left with the impression that the images that lie beneath the surface of the palimpsest will continue to bleed through, the earlier images, the previously written histories, somehow inevitable. Yet, the hope that Kate Atkinson inspires, transcending her gut-wrenching retelling of WWII horrors, is that by bearing witness, we might prevent a new canvass being painted in the future with the blood of its victims yet unborn.