This was the most thoroughly satisfying book I read this month and one of the best I’ve read this year so far. It’s the only Kate Atkinson book that’s brought me anywhere close to the pleasure I found in the first novel I read by her, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I loved that book and if possible I loved this one even more.
When it comes to “high concept,” this concept is as high as it gets. On a winter night in 1910, Ursula is born, but dies at birth. The next chapter narrates the exact same birth story — but this time the doctor arrives in time to save the baby. Unfortunately, Ursula dies from a fall when she’s just five years old — and is born over again on the same winter’s night, this time to avoid the fall and face other perils. Over and over, Ursula dies and gets to re-live her life — the same life in the same place with the same family, living a little longer each time as she avoids the pitfalls that killed her earlier.
This is not to suggest that Ursula is completely aware of what’s happening to her: she’s not. She has only a vague sense of deja vu and, sometimes, a sense of foreboding that leads her to avoid certainly situations that killed her last time. An early example occurs when the family’s maid goes to London to celebrate the armistice at the end of WWI and brings back a case of the Spanish flu that sweeps through the family. Later versions of Ursula know only that it’s tremendously important to stop the maid from going to London, but not why. Eventually, after several tries, the danger is averted.
This might sound like it makes for a dull story — the same thing over and over — but I found it fascinating and thought Atkinson made Ursula, the other characters, and the world they lived in so vivid I didn’t mind visiting it multiple times. The sense of time and place was incredibly well-done. Ursula lives (eventually) through both world wars in England (except for that one version of her life where she goes to Germany on vacation during her student years, falls in love with a German boy, and lives out WW2 in Germany instead) and all the various pleasures and hardships of that period are brilliantly delineated, particularly the several different times Ursula either survives or doesn’t survive the bombing of her apartment building during the London Blitz.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that a single event — maybe a decision, like going to Germany for the summer, or maybe a random event over which we have no control — can change the course of a life, and that idea was thoroughly explored in this book. I loved all the ways Ursula tried to change her fate (often without fully understanding why) and how sometimes those changes really mattered — like the time she shoved away the boy who tried to kiss her against her will, rather than letting him steal a kiss and later rape her, which led to a completely different kind of life. Other times, her fate was the same no matter what she did, which underlined, for me, how random the path of life often is. Every time through Ursula’s story was a delight and every little detail — some details the same, some changing subtly each time — made it a pleasure to read.
The ending wasn’t what I, or apparently several other readers, expected, but after giving it more thought I decided it was the only possible ending for this book. No matter how it turns out — or if it ever does — this book is a wonderful journey, especially if you’ve ever pondered the “what if …?” question just a little too long.