I went in cold, and was blind-sided by the inventive structure. The novel attempts to answer that unanswerable question: what would you do if you could live your whole life over again? What would you change? How would you try to get it “right?”
You see, Ursula Todd, the novel’s lens and protagonist, can live her life over again, and not just once. This twist ensures that she also dies, over, and over, and over again, so many times that I lost count. She begins again at her birth (though sometimes, mercifully, Atkinson fast-forwards to another precipitous event), and, until she makes it past childhood, her first focus is to avoid the things that carried her off in those years: accident and illness.
Once she successfully navigates into adolescence, Ursula begins to recognize her peculiar form of reincarnation, and starts trying to prevent not only her own death, but those of her family and neighbors, and finally, even greater catastrophes. But she finds that every choice engenders unintended, often dangerous consequences.
I loved this book, not only for its unconventional, even experimental form, but also for its carefully-chosen language and attention to the details of time and place and families. If I had the chance to speak with Ms. Atkinson, I’d ask her how she kept track of the detailed strands of narrative; the continuity across times and lines of plot is striking.
And I’d ask how she decided when to stop the book, when in theory the variations could continue on and on. And I’d ask her if she’d like the chance to live over and over again, or if once is enough. I’m asking myself that question right now.