Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Novel of timelines a masterful balancing act

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Award-winning British writer Kate Atkinson is best known for her Jackson Brodie detective novels, including Started Early, Took My Dog and When Will There Be Good News.

Her books are deft, delightful examples of literary mysteries, both meticulously plotted and beautifully written.ú

In her latest outing, Atkinson leaves Brodie and the mysteries behind, but neither the plotting nor the writing suffer from their absence.

Life After Life is the story -- or stories, really -- of Ursula Todd, born on Feb. 11, 1910... and dead shortly thereafter, thanks to an umbilical cord wrapped around her newborn neck.

But this is not the end of Ursula, born again on the same day, this time around saved by the timely arrival of the doctor, who snips the cord and leaves her to the ministrations of her mother, the housemaid and the cook.

She's not long for the world, however. Over and over, she meets her untimely demise -- a fall, a flu -- only to be reborn on Feb. 11, 1910, and given a chance to make almost unconscious choices to alter her future.

It sounds like high-concept malarkey, but in Atkinson's hands, it's a thoughtful and utterly lovely conceit that touches on destiny and free will but also love, duty and family.

Despite the repetition, it's oddly gripping and the pace is breathless, as each iteration of Ursula's life takes us deeper into the story and makes us more invested in the choices she makes.

It's also a masterful balancing act. Atkinson keeps the reader torn between wanting Ursula to live on and wanting to see the way in which she'll change her next kick at the can, not to mention constantly on edge, expecting the darkness to fall at any moment.

And some of Ursula's choices are so wrong-headed we can't wait for the inevitable end so she can get it right the next time.

Through all Ursula's timelines run lovingly detailed, evocative accounts of British life between the wars, achingly nostalgic descriptions of long summer days, ploughman's lunches on the lawn, foxes at twilight and girlhood crushes.

Less nostalgic but no less detailed are Atkinson's descriptions of the Blitz, during which Ursula is -- in some of her stories, at least -- a warden for the Air Raid Precautions service, sifting through rubble for survivors with a motley crew of fellow volunteers, using hot tea and black humour to deal with the horrors they unearth.

In another of her lives, Ursula is on the other side of the conflict, having married a German man and had a child in Berlin. The war finds her living in a bombed-out husk of an apartment block, foraging for food for her daughter.

In another, she finds herself drawn into the Nazi party, part of the Fuhrer's social circle.

Immaculately drawn characters add to the book's appeal -- Ursula's flighty aunt Izzie, her solid, dependable sister Pam, her sweet, beloved brother Teddy, the irascible cook Mrs. Glover, all have their parts to play.

Throughout, Atkinson proves herself an enviably nimble writer. Life After Life is funny, thought-provoking and poignant. It combines the charms of hearth and home with the ravages of wartime. It's a love letter to a certain kind of English life but also as engrossing as a thriller.

It will leave you wondering what life is worth and what you would do if you could live yours over.

Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J9


Updated on Monday, April 8, 2013 at 3:58 PM CDT: corrects title in caption

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