On a cold winter day in 1910, Ursula is born. Again. And again. And again. Every time Ursula dies, she is born again, and given the chance to live her life anew. But Ursula has no way of knowing this, only a vague recollection of events that have previously happened and a dread of what she did or didn’t do in previous lives. As she lives her life over and over, experiencing the lead-up to World War II and a whole range of different outcomes to her life, we start to wonder: can Ursula change history?
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge fan of so-called “quiet” books and though some of the events in this one are more explosive, this is at its heart a book about chances. The smallest actions of Ursula’s change the entire trajectory of her life. As we go back to that February day in 1910, we start to see the entire picture of what was happening that day, for instance; while some readers might get bored by the fact that we go through that day each and every time Ursula dies, I loved how it let Kate Atkinson build up the entire scene, through all the supporting characters, and finally leave us with something still to think about at the end of the book.
It also has the advantage of being set in a fascinating period of British history, spanning both World Wars over the course of its length. While it’s tethered to the world we know, the reincarnation aspect allows Atkinson to explore what might have happened if – and this is at the heart of the book. What happens when Ursula stands up for herself is completely different to what happens when Ursula is simply unable to do that. One of the most heartbreaking episodes in the book, when Ursula’s life turns out to be devastating, is through something that is not her fault in the slightest but completely destroys her self-worth and confidence. And, of course, she blames herself, and the guilt and blame imposed by that sole event change the course of her life. It’s also one of the most problematic, because she manages to subvert and avoid that very event next time, but as ordinary women without her sense of foreboding, we can’t hope for the same.
I also loved the World War II sections; I think many readers will agree that there’s just something about the London blitz which, horrifying as it was, is almost guaranteed fascinating reading. In Ursula’s situation there are simply so many different outcomes and the book’s structure allows Atkinson to explore each and every one. Regardless if Ursula dies or Ursula lives, anything could happen to anyone she loves. It’s not a wonderful situation, but it made for wonderful reading, and Atkinson pulls off the reincarnation trick over and over.
When I purchased this book, I read it almost immediately; I’d heard a lot of hype and I simply wanted to read it for myself. After doing so, I’m pleased that it lived up to all of that and more. I’d happily recommend – and will be recommending – this book, and I’ll certainly be going straight for the rest of the Kate Atkinson on my TBR pile.