Kate Atkinson's first novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum," introduced a smart, funny voice to British fiction. Ruby Lennox, the sarcastic heroine, unspooled a compelling yarn of mad parents, multiple sisters, a family pet store, a secret hidden even from herself. When the two literary novels that followed didn't live up to "Scenes," Ms. Atkinson switched genres. Taking a page out of fellow Edinburgher Ian Rankin's police notebook, she began producing the Jackson Brodie detective novels (now adapted for TV). "Case Histories," the best of these, returns to Ms. Atkinson's signature territory: a little girl in danger, a compelling heroine, a family secret.
Ms. Atkinson's new novel, "Life After Life," soars above anything she's done before.
This ambitious composition explores the many possible fates of Ursula Todd, a banker's daughter born in an English country house just before World War I. Jorge Luis Borges' "Garden of Forking Paths" offers one clear antecedent for the alternate lives' tale, but Ms. Atkinson's time-bending, rule-breaking narrative most resembles David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and Jim Crace's "Being Dead." Ms. Atkinson, like her two brilliant English contemporaries, has crafted an experimental novel that appeals to traditional readers.
"LIFE AFTER LIFE"
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown ($27.99).
Traditional readers want well-drawn characters, and this book delivers fine portraits of all the members of the Todd family -- from cruel older brother Maurice to beloved father Hugh to wild Aunt Izzie. "Life After Life" is novelistic comfort food, something to consume when "Downton Abbey" isn't on. (Fans of the show might notice the nod to the series' creator -- the character who delivers baby Ursula is named Dr. Fellowes.) Rambunctious moments of family life lighten darker themes of war and misogyny, and Ms. Atkinson knows how to render a funny scene:
" 'Ow!' one of the evacuees squealed beneath the table. 'Some bugger just kicked me.' Everyone instinctively looked at Maurice. Something cold and wet nosed itself up Ursula's skirt. She hoped very much that it was the nose of one of the dogs and not one of the evacuees."
This novel is already a bestseller, but it's more than that, too. Like a game that invites readers to play, the opening gambit occurs when the heroine is born on Feb. 11, 1910. Since readers will quickly discern the game's rules, it's no spoiler to say that in some versions of her life, Ursula lives to be an old lady; in others she dies in childhood. Several key dates and scenes recur and readers will find themselves checking back to compare the different versions. "Darkness falls" becomes a phrase to dread and readers will root for precocious Ursula to make the choices that will enable her to survive and thrive.
The narrative runs from 1910 to 1967 and is especially strong in its wartime portraits of England and Germany. Bucolic country scenes alternate with a sensory-soaked rendering of the London Blitz -- lightless, smoky nights, the stench of cordite and dead bodies, the touch of charred flesh, the often hopeless efforts of rescuers to save people trapped in the rubble:
"Ursula splinted a broken arm, bandaged a head wound, patched an eye and strapped up Mr. Simms's ankle. ... She labeled two unconscious survivors (head injuries, broken femur, broken collarbone, broken ribs, what was probably a crushed pelvis) and several dead (who were easier, they were simply dead) and then double-checked them in case she had labeled them the wrong way round and had posted the dead to the hospital and the living to the mortuary."
Like many of us living in violent times, Ursula wonders what might have made history take a different course:
"Don't you wonder sometimes," Ursula said. "If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in -- I don't know, say, a Quaker household -- surely things would be different."
"Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?" Ralph asked mildly.
"Well, if they knew what was going to happen, they might."
"But nobody knows what's going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood."'
The novel begins and ends with the concept of amor fati. Eight-year-old Ursula Todd first hears the phrase as "a more fatty," but her psychiatrist explains that it means to accept one's fate. Luckily for readers, that is exactly what she doesn't do.
Susan Balee, a contributor to The Hudson Review and a former faculty member in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University, lives in Squirrel Hill.