Following on previous posts on the replay structure of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life and on Design Strategies for Replay Stories, here is a closer look at how Atkinson presents the many alternate versions of the life of her protagonist, Ursula Todd (note that her last name is a pun on tod, the German word for dead — appropriately for a character who dies repeatedly throughout the book).
All the chapters are titled by dates that follow Ursula’s lifespan, starting with 11 February 1910, the day she is born. Some of the dates are a single day and the rest are all single months. This helps the reader to focus on a few representative, dramatic moments in each version of Ursula’s life and to assume the continuity between these moments. The dates also orient us to the larger historical events that are playing out — the end of World War I, the time between the wars when Germany was falling under Nazism and women in England were questioning their traditional role, and the London Blitz and the devastation of Berlin.
In addition to the numbering of the chapters by dates, there are memorable titles like “Snow” and “War” and longer ones taken, for example, from a Keats poem or an Irving Berlin song. The titled sections range from 1 to 8 chapters. The dating of the chapters and naming of the sections allows us to notice when we are getting an alternate version of the same event or series of events.
There are 12 chapters titled 11 Feb 1910, I have labeled (A) through (L) . A leads to immediate death by strangulation on the umbilical cord. (B) and (C )narrate survival when the doctor arrives in time, only to be reborn (D) and subject to possible death at age 3 from drowning or (E) falling off a ledge pursuing the cat (“War” section). In the next incarnations (F) (G) and (H) , she survives the War, but not the Armistice which brings the deadly flu of 1918. She is reborn again (I) and this time avoids the flu by pushing her maid down the stairs so that she cannot go to the London celebrations. In the other narrations of the birth, we get two variations (J) (K) in which her mother is more active in saving her and, in the last chapter, a final 11 Feb 1910 chapter (L) with a switch to the point of view of the midwife, cozily snowbound in an inn, oblivious to the permutations of fate made possible by her absence.
These rebootings of Ursula’s life, like the respawning of a game character, are mirrored later in the novel at other hinge points (a possible rape on her 16th birthday, a trip to Munich in 1933), climaxing in a particular bombing run in November 1940 when the building she is or is not living in is destroyed by a German bomb. The war chapters are the most parameterized of any of the events in the book, and the November 1940 bombing is described with the most detailed variation of any single incident. There are 5 variant lengthy chapters for November 1940, making clear where she is living, whom she is sleeping with, and what precautions and compassionate choices she makes on that day. The variants gain in power, starting with the narration of her death as a tenant in the bombed building, since we read the successive versions looking for clues that she will be able to escape, and with mounting horror as we realize that living elsewhere is no protection, and as we witness through Ursula’s eyes more and more of the gruesome carnage. As five detailed versions of a descent into a particular kind of wartime hell, the November 1940 chapters reinforce one another, making clear the haphazard nature of survival.
Although Atkinson sees the world as highly parameterized — there are hints of undeveloped branches, as when a serial child murderer makes a grab at Ursula, or when a love affair does not develop through bad timing — she does not try to represent every permutation. She picks out particular nodes, emphases key parallels and key variants in a limited range of possibilities, and dramatizes those differences. Is Ursula sleeping with the married dashing naval officer Creighton or with her dull but reliable co-worker Ralph? Is she living with Creighton or in the doomed Argyll Road building or with her friend Millie a few blocks away? Will the elderly sisters be spared if they go to the bomb shelter instead of rushing upstairs to get their knitting? Will the neighbor’s baby be spared if he is on Ursula’s lap? These are highly contrasting dramatic beats that we don’t need a scorecard to keep track of because we care about the outcome, and are therefore eager to read another variant in which we hope that things will go better. And Atkinson is skillful in evoking alternate possibilities and dangers avoided, as when Ursula is unable to remember the name of the would-be rapist friend of her brothers who only managed to kiss her roughly in this alternate life, or when she is immediately repulsed by her encounter with the man who in the rape timeline would become her abusive husband. So the sense of multiple parameters is always present because they are evoked by highly charged narrative possibilities.
At the same time, Atkinson uses some of the funneling tricks of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, or a single-path adventure game to guide Ursula’s progress. She offers variants mostly in chronological grouping, getting her through birth, childhood accidents, and the 1918 flu before moving on to other branch points as she levels up into adolescence and then adulthood. Of course it is possible to draw the graph of Ursula’s many lives as a series of shallow branches, as stunted as a Chose Your Own Adventure tree, Atkinson does not present the world of the story as made of up discrete branches on a common tree. She may have pruned the possibilities for dramatic purposes, but she is always reminding us of the larger range of permutations, and confusing us just enough so that we are never quite sure how exactly we got to the current node. There are multiple ways in which Ursula can survive strangulation or the 1918 flu or the 1926 rape threat. We are made aware of all these possibilities, but we seem not to be expected to keep track of which exact timeline she is on, only the parameters most relevant to the current situation.
Atkinson also makes use of ritualized expressions for repeated actions. Ursula’s death is described in detail in some timelines, but in others it is abbreviated with with the ritualized evocation of a bat and the phrase “darkness fell.” Because she knows that we have read the earlier versions she does not have to repeat the same information. In fact, anything that is repeated in the narrative is significant for its persistence or its change of state.
This emphasis on dramatic compression, high-stakes focus, parallelism, contrast, clear story beats, and shorthand communication of repeated events is the result of centuries of tradition in prose narrative. One could not just take the current narrative, and navigate through it with hyperlinks (as the iPad ToC affords and thereby invites us to do) because the novel was written for unisequential — beginning to end — reading, even though the individual pieces rearrange story content in multiform units and violate chronological order. But we can look at examples like this one as evidence of the convergence of the complex parameterized, replayable stories we want to tell as members of 21st century culture and the procedural and participatory affordances of the new digital medium.