Google the phrase “go back in time and,” and the search engine will suggest completing the phrase with a simple directive: “kill Hitler.” The appeal of murdering the Nazi dictator is so great that it has its own subgenre within speculative fiction, a trope known as “Hitler’s murder paradox” in which a time traveler journeys back far enough to nip the leader — and World War II — in the bud, typically with unexpected consequences.
Kate Atkinson, the very talented English novelist, is the most recent writer to try her hand at offing the führer. The result, “Life After Life,” is a thoroughly entertaining, periodically moving read, and a wholly unique addition to that canon. Although the novel’s prelude finds the heroine confronting Hitler with her father’s World War I service revolver, the number of pages Atkinson devotes to her deadly objective are minimal. “Life After Life” spends more time investigating the ways in which war affects the lives of one middle-class English family than it does on global power dynamics.
Atkinson is most famous in America for “Case Histories” and the other books in the series of literary detective stories to which she has devoted her efforts for nearly a decade. In “Life After Life,” she returns to themes she explored in her earliest works: “Human Croquet” features another English Rose with the capacity for time travel; “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” trails a woman with uncanny knowledge of events outside the realm of her personal experience.
This time around, the supernatural protagonist is Ursula Todd, born in 1910, who dies again and again, reborn with the knowledge of her past lives bubbling just beneath her consciousness. This premise shares some elements with those of the Bill Murray vehicle “Groundhog Day,” as well as Ashton Kutcher’s “The Butterfly Effect,” with all of the sweetness of the first and none of the stupidity of the second.
Atkinson kills off Ursula several times in a variety of ways before the poor girl hits puberty. That these scenes are gruesome and tragic as well as very funny — the novelistic version of Edward Gorey’s “The Gashleycrumb Tinies” — are a reminder of Atkinson’s considerable wit. After several attempts, Ursula manages to grow up a little, and that’s when her real problems begin. Should she study the classics at university or attend secretarial school? Should she move to London or travel abroad? These might seem like First World problems, but as it turns out, even First World problems can have fatal consequences at times like these.
If there were any doubts that the start of the 20th century was among the worst times in modern history, Atkinson puts them to rest. Ursula and her contemporaries experience all manner of indignity, from being shunned for bringing shame upon their families to coming down with deadly influenza to being blown up in the Blitz. At times, the novel feels like an expertly crafted, inexpressibly dire update of the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s series, where nearly all choices result in abjection or death. That Ursula must relive these horrors over and over again gives the reader the sense that they are experiencing the worst parts of the 20th century in real time.
Although her characters drop like flies, Atkinson never so much as flirts with pathos; her ethos and her heroine are as unsentimental as the times require. Squatting in a bombed-out apartment that resembles “a dollhouse, open to the world, all the intimate details of their domestic life on view — beds and sofas, the pictures on the walls, even an ornament or two that had miraculously survived the blast,” Ursula recalls a recent conversation with a hysterical old woman: “Oh, do shut up,” she tells her.
With the exception of one Derek Oliphant, a villain who seems to have stepped out of a Lifetime movie, the novel’s peripheral characters are unfailingly intriguing — especially the female ones. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, is an ardent wife and mother but strains under the restrictions of those roles. Ursula’s aunt Izzie lives in London and takes lovers, but even she cannot escape consensus. While the struggles of Ursula’s female relations provide nuanced takes on the limitations all women faced, Atkinson’s most interesting case study might be her most exceptional: Eva Braun.
Hitler’s girlfriend takes Ursula to the Berghof when she’s feeling under the weather. Braun is revealed to be a pathetic figure, one who is “shunted rudely out of the public eye, allowed no official status, allowed no status at all, as loyal as a dog but with less recognition than a dog” with “no intellect to sustain her.” While the reader may bridle at her ignorance and complicity, Braun is a victim of her times. Like Ursula, she has a paucity of decent outcomes but none of her hindsight.
Without Atkinson’s considerable sympathy for terrible decisions, “Life After Life” wouldn’t be such a fine novel — even if it doesn’t solve the Hitler problem.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.