What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
This is the question asked by this exquisite novel. Set in the early twentieth century, this is a story about family ties, love, death and fate. Atkinson shows how a story can have an infinite number possible endings as she narrates the life of Ursula Todd over and over again. She asks if we have the power to change the course of our lives or if we are powerless, utterly at the whim of fate. She shows how a single moment can change the trajectory of your life, for better or worse, sometimes only having a minute, barely perceivable effect and at other times influencing your life for decades to come.
There are versions of Ursula’s life that are harrowing and heart-breaking, and others that throw these into relief when a decision or action averts a crisis, the characters never realising the momentous danger that they have narrowly avoided. Some versions are particularly emotive as you witness how one terrible event causes misery and grief that continue to influence Ursula’s life long after the event itself. In several lives Ursula doesn’t make it past childhood, instead ‘darkness falls’ and you are reminded of how transient human life is, only a very fine line between life and death. This way of demonstrating our impermanence is at once playful and powerful, showing your emotional attachment to a character who is only as real as her creator wants her to be.
Ursula and the rest of her family live through two world wars. Hugh, Ursula’s father, serves in the first, but the main focus is during the second war. While life continues almost untouched at the family home, Fox Corner, Ursula faces the hardship of war in multiple ways. In more than one life, Ursula is in Germany for the war, and the descriptions of this are menacing and fearful. In others she lives in London, and must cope with the daily onslaught of the Blitz. These sections of the narrative were particularly emotive, especially as Atkinson manages to find compassion and warmth even in the most bleak situations. The descriptions of the damage caused by the bombing seem so alien from what we know now, it seems impossible to imagine that London was destroyed the way it was and that people had to live through it. With all the conflict that is going on elsewhere in the world right now, this novel made it seem far more real than the endless news cycle you watch on TV.
It is a really great story which reminds you how we all only have one life to live and you don’t get the chance to have another go. You are left wondering which is the ‘real’ story; do you want to be lulled into security with the happy ending and the safety of the family home at Fox Corner or do you want to admit that life doesn’t always run smoothly? It is a bold and original story, with brilliant characters and many highs and lows of emotion. Definitely Atkinson at her best.