Is There A Life After Life
Atkinson uses an unusual novel structure which encompasses a repeated sequence of looping back in time to explore alternate probable lives for Ursula Todd, the main character. The first version of Ursula’s existence features her being strangled by her umbilical cord thereafter being born stillborn. In yet another iteration, Ursula dies as a child after drowning. When she is saved from drowning, she meets her death by falling from the roof as she tries to retrieve her doll. Other situations that lead to the demise of Ursula are such as when she gets the Spanish flu epidemic multiple times. However, she is able to avert the flu in the fourth attempt.
Ursula’s life is marred with adverse experiences which put her to test, whether to safeguard herself, or that of others close to her. After surviving her childhood and experiencing life as an adult, Ursula is raped, an event that causes great trauma. Due to the rape, she gets pregnant and is forced to terminate the pregnancy. To add insult onto injury, Ursula finds herself within the confines of an oppressive marriage which ends up in her being killed by her abusive spouse as she tries to break out. With her knowledge of already foregone experiences, Ursula tries to obviate an oppressive marriage through adorning an aggressive character against the would-be assailant.
As Ursula is focused on precluding negative events from occurring, she finds herself immersed in the life of Nancy, a neighbor, who is at risk of murder by a child molester. Nancy is saved from being raped and killed. Nancy’s second chance at life places her at a critical position in Ursula’s life as she becomes Teddy’s, Ursula’s brother, girlfriend. Another iteration sees Ursula working in the War Office during the Second World War. She witnesses the bombing of the United Kingdom by Germany, an event called the Blitz, as well as a direct attack on a bomb shelter in Argyll Road. In some of these events, Ursula is a victim while in others, she is part of the rescue team.
The theme of renewal is quite ubiquitous in the novel. In every instance that Ursula gets a second chance, she uses her bleak memory of foregone experiences to forge a path for her current life. Surviving becomes a recurrent reality for Ursula as she maneuvers through heart-wrenching experiences of being buttered by an abusive husband, to suffering rape and being forced into an abortion. However, each time Ursula resurfaces provides her with an opportunity to influence outcomes in her life toward a more favorable direction.
Atkinson is deliberate in her focus on Ursula’s hostile encounters. She is no relenting in exposing her readers to the different levels of harsh events that Ursula finds herself entangled in. However, the existence of some Ursula-magic implies an ability to use the past as the benchmark for her future endeavors. It becomes evident that each time Ursula gets an opportunity at life is akin to her renewal and; a kind of purification that encircles her desire to live a fulfilling and peaceful life. However, although the novel does not provide a happy ending for Ursula, it does take on a lighter approach in the various opportunities that Ursula gets to add onto her list of positive experiences.
One of the defining and determining themes in Life After Life is fate. Atkinson makes it clear that, existence comes at a halt after death and that there is no premature or mature death. This particular assertion is premised on the variation of instances for when Ursula meets her death. In one instance, she is a stillborn, while in another, she dies from a fall as she tries to retrieve a doll on the roof. These events are merely descriptive and expressive of the forceful nature of fate. Atkinson makes it clear that despite measures to avert adversity, death befalls humanity, nonetheless.
A keen observation reveals the fact that Ursula’s existence is punctuated by close shaves whereby each disaster embodies its own bundle of darkness. In some instances, Atkinson projects the darkness as transcending Ursula’s as the main target and is projected toward some of the characters. Ursula is forced to push a housemaid down a staircase in argument that she was saving her from a more grotesque demise. The necessary evil is even more daunting to Ursula, who is forced to take the role of executioner. Thus, whether Ursula is able to avert danger, she finds herself in situations where the darkness is brought from within her.
A Sense of Other
A gripping encounter of Ursula as she transitions from one life to another presents the reader with a sense of other. With memories of foregone, some vague while others almost entirely clear, Ursula makes different choices to escape an early demise each time. While the character does not change, Ursula becomes part of the other, an embodiment of different versions of her own existence. Throughout the novel, Atkinson gives the reader an opportunity to experience a different Ursula, who shows her wit as she tries to prevent adversity from defining her existence. As she ventures into each life, she projects a sense of being that is, in part, a summary of the lessons learned in the antecedent events.
The intrigue with the sense of other is further expressed in Ursula’s inclusion of her brother, Teddy. As the golden boy in the novel, a beloved, Teddy is strategically placed as a cushion for helping Ursula pursue different outcomes for her life. On that account, Ursula devotes herself toward building a life that integrates Teddy’s survival as being integral to her own existence and overall wellbeing. It is as if Ursula goes through a transformation which helps her become sensitive to the role of family in beautifying one’s experiences in life.
Despite the novel ending with Ursula’s death, the reader is implicated in a narrative encompassing both tension and suspension. One is not certain of the nature of events that Ursula is likely to encounter each time she reincarnates. The use of magic in the novel expresses Atkinson’s creativity in exploring otherness which is developed singularly in one character. Having the capacity to embody different personalities for Ursula implies Atkinson’s emphasis on the capability of the mind, and more so, humanity, to readjust in the event of adversity. Atkinson appeals to real-life events which makes the novel even more appealing.
However, a more critical reader is likely to question the preservation of Ursula’s identity as the novel progresses. Atkinson projects the idea that the future is written in the past. There is no possibility of telling what is going to happen as events unfold. However, the effect on Ursula’s character is critical to understanding her positioning within the various events. It is not as clear whether going through such adversity helps maintain some aspects of her character, or if she becomes a new person each time she reincarnates. One is likely to consider the book as encompassing different characters with the name Ursula.