A novel approach to ‘roads not taken’

Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson
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Bestselling author Kate Atkinson is coming to Yorkshire. Yvette Huddleston has read her latest book that plays with time and space.

“What if you the chance to live your life over and over until you finally got it right?” asks one of the characters in bestselling author Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Life after Life – and that is exactly what its protagonist Ursula Todd gets the chance to do.

Atkinson will be talking about her new book when she appears at this year’s revitalised Huddersfield Literature Festival next Friday, kicking off a weekend of exciting literary events – other visiting writers include Joanne Harris, Jeremy Dyson, Michael Stewart and Jodi Picoult.

York-born Atkinson’s most recent novels have been intelligent, hugely popular literary crime thrillers featuring former police inspector turned private investigator Jackson Brodie.

The first three in the series of four novels featuring Brodie were adapted for BBC television under the title Case Histories. With her latest novel, however, Atkinson returns to the intricate, beautifully observed family sagas of her earlier work – her Whitbread Prize-winning debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000) – only this time with an unusual metaphysical twist.

On a snowy December evening in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of Sylvie and Hugh who live “in semi-rural bliss near Beaconsfield” in a house called Fox Corner. The baby girl barely lives to take her first breath before she dies. But then she is born again and this time she lives a little longer, the next time longer still and so on. The novel then follows Ursula through various permutations of her life while taking in the major historical events of the 20th century.

Personal events during her numerous incarnations include being raped as a 16-year-old, working as an air-raid warden in London during the Blitz, having an affair with a senior naval official and meeting Adolf Hitler.

Throughout the novel, Atkinson explores the significant role that fate plays in all our lives; how the course of events can turn on just one split-second decision or quirk of circumstance.

It’s an intriguing and, at first thought at least, immensely appealing premise – surely if we could keep trying out all those “roads not taken” then happiness and fulfilment could, eventually, be guaranteed.

But Atkinson goes on to implicitly pose the question – how many of us would actually want to? Ursula is exhausted and haunted by what she has seen and experienced, her memories are “like a cascade of echoes”, she has a persistent feeling of déjà vu and is frequently overcome by a foreshadowing anxiety on behalf of those she loves. Often she welcomes the onset of “the darkness”.

Her death at numerous points in the book comes in ways that include accidental gas poisoning, drowning, bombing in London during the Blitz, murder at the hands of a violent husband and suicide in war-ravaged Berlin.

Despite the almost magical quality of Ursula’s unusual existence, this is a book very much grounded in reality while also acknowledging a spiritual side – there are, not surprisingly, several references to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation.

And Atkinson is so adept at chronicling the rough and tumble of family life – the disappointments, the celebrations, the squabbling, the idyllic holidays by the sea, the jealousies and misunderstandings, the favouritism and sibling rivalry.

There is a lot of love and joy in Ursula’s multiple lives as well as pain, loss and tragedy. Atkinson’s great skill is in portraying the exquisite tapestry of it with warmth, humour and immense humanity.

Life After Life, £18.99, is published on March 14 by Doubleday. Kate Atkinson will be appearing at the Huddersfield Literature Festival on Friday March 15.

Other festival highlights

Storytelling and workshop with bestselling author Joanne Harris: Saturday March 16.

Creative writing workshops for all ages, with tutors including Michael Stewart, author of King Crow: Saturday March 16.

Joanne Harris in conversation with poet James Nash: Saturday March 16.

The Yorkshire Roots of Ted Hughes – with local historians, writers and personal friends of the poet: Sunday March 17.

Jeremy Dyson – novelist, short story writer and script writer: Sunday March 17.

Full details of all festival events are on www.litfest.org.uk