I’ve been hearing Kate Atkinson’s name in various places and contexts over the past year, and I just happened to have gotten around to reading this book right when The Morning News announced its 2014 Tournament of Books contenders (of which this is not one but sort of is because it's in the pre-tournament playoffs). So well done, me.
If you’ve heard anything about this book, I would be willing to bet that the anything you heard was both (a) positive and (b) a little hard to follow. “There’s this girl . . . and she dies at birth. But, like, then she gets another go at it? But then she drowns as a child. So.”
Well basically, it leaves us at historical fiction with a side of reincarnation, even though it’s rarely addressed as such within the book itself. And instead of coming back as a cow or a wizard or something, Ursula is born again and again to a woman named Sylvie and a man named Hugh, in a warm bedroom in England on a snowy night.
The book is rhythmic down to the smallest detail. The sections of the book, along with Ursula’s life, are ordered in patterns that carry you only so far before inevitably bringing you back to the beginning and starting again, each time taking you on a slightly different path because of Ursula’s slight changes in behavior. Each cycle carries you a bit farther than the last, into later and later years of Ursula’s life. Some cycles overlap with previous cycles, with only minor (but often crucial) variations; some are completely uncharted territory. Each life that Ursula lives is hers and yet different from the last. And while Ursula isn't ever fully aware that she is repeating her life, she's able to affect historical events by making small course corrections each time around.
|Step 1: Distract enemy soldiers with kittens. Step 2: There is no Step 2.|
And listen, a lot of horrible things happen to Ursula and the people in her life, and there’s often a war on (specifically, a WORLD War), but somehow the overall tone is light. Atkinson writes with a humor that isn’t necessarily humor.
The salami-eating man had followed her out into the corridor when she went in search of the ladies’. She thought he was going to the buffet car but then as she reached the lavatory compartment he attempted, to her alarm, to push in after her. He said something to her that she didn’t understand, although its meaning seemed lewd (the cigar and the salami seemed strange preludes). “Lass mich in Ruhe,” leave me in peace, she said stoutly, but he continued to push her and she continued to push back. She suspected their struggle, polite as opposed to violent, might have looked quite comical to an observer. (p. 336)
You see? A terrible thing is happening, and yet we are given permission to chuckle (albeit somewhat nervously).