Kate Atkinson talks about her latest book, Life After Life, in which Ursula Todd lives through the 20th century—including the Second World War—multiple times.
Do you think of Life After Life as a war novel?
No. I don’t think in genre terms, and also, to me, a war novel is a guy thing. But it was always going to be about the war. She had to go through the Second World War before she could know what she was going to do. I knew that she was going to die and come back to life and die and come back to life until she realized what was going on.
Seeing her go through the war years multiple times—not only in her native England, but also in Germany—highlights the female experience of these events.
Yes, women weren’t on the front lines. But a huge number volunteered to be air raid wardens: it was a very neighborly thing; you had your neighborhood and you needed to know that neighborhood. And when you talk to women of that age, they had exciting times in the war.
You convey that, but you also convey the horror of being bombed.
I’m fascinated by the Blitz; that’s really why I was writing the book. If I could go back to any time in history, it would be London during the Blitz, because it was such a unique experience. When we look now at Afghanistan and see people being blown up by bombs, we know it’s absolutely disgusting and horrendous, but we forget that that’s what was happening in London during the war. The propaganda of that era put forward the Blitz spirit of “We can take it,” and sometimes it’s hard to look behind that.
This feels like a feminist book, which is meant as a compliment.
Yes. Feminism is such an incredibly awkward word for us these days, isn’t it? Not to be feminist would be bizarre, wouldn’t it? There is a lot in the book about the powerlessness of women, but also about the power of women. If you think of Ursula’s aunt Sophie, who’s a generation older, she’s very frustrated, but also very powerful. In every generation there’s going to be a different kind of woman.
We think of alternative history as closer to science fiction, but that’s a bit of what you’re playing with, isn’t it?
Alternate history fascinates me, as it fascinates all novelists, because “What if?” is the big thing. I tried to keep it as subtle as possible; I didn’t want it to feel like a time travel book. But at the heart of it is a great cliché: “What would have happened if Hitler had been killed?”
When Ursula’s in Germany, she befriends Eva Braun.
I got totally fascinated with Eva Braun. But I always knew there would have to be a counterforce to the Blitz. We helped destroy Germany: they suffered infinitely more than we did, and I just felt that I had to have her have a life there. In Germany, Ursula goes through the looking glass, and it changes her. I wanted her to feel different after she’s been in Germany; throughout the book she’s becoming less passive, and I knew when she came back from Germany she’d be more vigorous. It’s the making of a heroine, and it’s a slow birth.