“There is a fine line between living and dying,” a character observes in Kate Atkinson’s new novel. And it does certainly seem to be the case here, in the midst of two world wars, during the Great Influenza, at the beginning of the twentieth century in Britain. Characters come close to death, and some do not escape it: alternate histories are woven together until we are not really sure what is true. And this is the message. “History is all about ‘what ifs’” a character says late in the novel. More to the point here, perhaps, is that fiction, and this fiction in particular, is all about ‘what ifs’.
This is my first experience with what I would call a literary mash-up. Mash-up is a relatively new concept in literature that was borrowed from music where two or more songs are combined, usually by laying the vocal track of one song over the instrumental track of another. Wikipedia defines a literary mash up as taking a pre-existing work of fiction, often a classic, and combining perhaps thirty or forty percent of it with a vampire, werewolf, or horror genre. Atkinson has taken “classic history,” which is the Führer’s horror story, and overlaid many possible stories (love stories, family histories, employment possibilities) so that outcomes in some cases are different for individuals, but not, that we can see, in the larger history.
Stories cascade upon one another, all centered around a single family, indeed, a single person, Ursula, who we meet in the first chapter and who succeeds, we think at first, in killing the Führer.
“Don’t you wonder sometimes, “ Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”The juxtaposition of the chapters makes one remember those times when we stare into the unknowingness of the future and wonder what it will hold for us…and once there, looking back at the innocence of the early years, when we proceeded with our lives as though we had any control at all. Which brings me to a larger observation in this novel and in Atkinson’s fiction in general: oftentimes Atkinson’s characters are not agents of change, but reagents, possibly causing a chain reaction when they are introduced, possibly having no discernible impact at all.
“Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future.”Sometimes there are exceptional people, but even they cannot escape that possibility that “one thing” could change everything. Therein lie our power, and the power of the fiction writer.
The title, Life After Life, points to those lives impacted by another’s life, or a close escape from death, or lives that continue after another has died, or simply the alternate histories we all might have if “one thing had been different.”
When the book and the stories were drawing to a close, I admit I didn’t want to get to the end. I didn’t want another person to die unexpectedly. I didn’t want Ursula to grow older. I didn’t want to know which story was true. So, you see, I was caught, too.
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