Life After Life

Life After Life

by

Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life: A Long Hard War, Nov 1940 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The rescue squad now has two additional members: Mr. Emslie, a grocer who had been bombed out of his house, and Stella, a striptease artist. One evening, Miss Woolf treats the squad to a piano recital. Mr. Armitage sings along with her accompaniment, and then Herr Zimmerman plays Bach for them on his violin. The performance is beautiful, and Ursula finds herself thinking about Hugh’s death. She is gripped by melancholy, and Miss Woolf takes her hand, almost vibrating with emotion.
Even though war seeps into every aspect of life in Britain, the squad still manages to find moments of beauty and love. Even though Miss Woolf isn’t Ursula’s family, she in some ways takes on the role of a mother figure. Holding Ursula’s hand becomes a particularly symbolic show of support for Ursula, as Hugh had done the same thing in Ursula’s time of need.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
At the end of the concert there is “a moment of pure, profound, silence,” and then the “peace [is] broken” by a warning—“bombers within twenty minutes.” The barrage begins; by the time Ursula and the team arrive at Argyll Road, all the various rescue squads have assembled. All around them fires are blazing, and the presence of the Bomb Disposal Squad indicates that a bomb might go off at any moment. Ursula has a premonition that things are not going to go well.
Ursula’s premonition is due to the fact that she has experienced this disaster several times, though always from the other side of it. This time, luckily, Ursula is saved from the cellar because she is responding to the bombs, not hiding from them.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
They are greeted by a “grisly tableau”: many limbless torsos. Ursula sees a dress before she realizes there is a woman wearing it, her head and legs blown off (Lavinia Nesbit). Ursula spots a woman (Mrs. Appleyard) covered in dust. When she tries to comfort the woman, she asks where her baby Emil is. Ursula looks around; when she returns to Mrs. Appleyard, her head is lolling limply and Ursula is unable to find her pulse.
Although Ursula is fortunate enough to avoid the fate that had befallen her in previous timelines, this timeline brings with it a different sort of tragedy. Unlike the other instances of this bombing at Argyll Road, Ursula must deal with the aftermath of it and help to care for the people who are dying.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Mr. Emslie is in the cellar of a house, and Miss Woolf instructs Ursula to bring him a morphia tablet for a girl who is screaming. When the girl pulls out a gold cigarette case, Ursula realizes she knows the girl—it is Renee Miller. As the morphia starts to kick in, Renee convulses. Mr. Emslie tries to coax her back to consciousness, but Renee shudders a final time and dies. Ursula picks up the gold cigarette case, which had fallen from Renee’s purse.
Renee’s situation bears an eerie similarity to Ursula’s had been in previous timelines: hiding in the cellar, getting hit by the bomb, having a relationship with Crighton—which again reminds readers that only small changes in Ursula’s circumstances (primarily, Ursula’s decision to live with Millie and not on her own or with Crighton) enabled her to escape this fate.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
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They discover more dead: men, women, and even a dog. Ursula is reminded of Pompeii, which she had visited on a tour of Europe she had taken, and she begins to think about that period in her life. On her return, she realized how little she wanted to teach and instead took a typing course with a man named Mr. Carver, who had later been arrested for exposing himself in public. Ursula had gone to Europe a virgin, but didn’t return that way. The man, Gianni, had been studying at Bologna and made the rite of passage less embarrassing and awkward than she feared.
It is notable that in this timeline (theoretically a continuation of the one in which she allows Howie a kiss rather than punching him out) had again led to a slightly different outcome. Rather than Ursula rebelling against Mr. Carver, she simply takes the typing course, once again tying her ability to stand up to Howie to her ability to stand up to Mr. Carver.
Themes
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon
Mr. Emslie shakes Ursula from her reverie. As they move forward on their knees, Ursula realizes that she is kneeling on top of a mound, under which she finds a tiny hand belonging to Emil. She thinks it is better for Mrs. Appleyard to have died rather than know about this.
This incident is truly disturbing to Ursula, more than anything else she encounters. Perhaps it is the most tragic because, as is true of Ursula’s deaths as a child, it represents a destruction of all of the possibilities this child could become.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
When Ursula emerges from the cellar, she spots a dog cowering in a doorway. When she approaches it, however, it runs off. Eventually she catches up with it, holding its trembling body to her chest and trying to calm it. She starts to sob for all of the innocent people who had died. At that moment, there is a tremendous noise, and when she turns she sees the wall behind her had fallen. She discovers that Mr. Emslie has been crushed by the wall. Miss Woolf starts to cry, and Ursula comforts her.
Ursula’s circumstances very luckily improve in this timeline versus the last time in which she saw the dog. Whereas before, she catches the dog, here it runs off—earning its eventual name, “Lucky.” With moments like this, Atkinson demonstrates how sometimes choices can alter one’s fate, but sometimes simple luck and randomness can alter one’s circumstances as well.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
Just then, Ursula runs into Fred Smith, who is enraged rather than grieving over the needless deaths of the rescuers crushed by the wall. The sun starts to come up, and Ursula says that she should to go home. She lives just around the corner, and she remarks that she’s lucky her building wasn’t hit—and that she ran after the dog, which she has named Lucky.
Ursula calling the dog “Lucky” is less of an acknowledgment of the idea that things are fated to happen, and more that her changing circumstances can take fortuitous turns into better outcomes. For example, she had seen the dog in a previous timeline, but this time the dog luckily ran away, saving her from being crushed by the wall.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
Fred offers to walk Ursula home. They set out, hand in hand, the dog walking behind them, but instead of walking to Ursula’s apartment, she walks Fred to Izzie’s apartment (Izzie has gone to Cornwall). Fred kisses her and wraps his arm around her; they then fall asleep together on Izzie’s bed, dead tired. Hours later they wake and make love—"the kind of love” that “people who are anticipating disaster” practice, “free of all restraint.”
Ursula’s description of the sex she shares with Fred demonstrates another way in which the war affects everyday life: it affords people a degree of abandonment because the future is so unsure. Thus, fulfilling today’s desires becomes much more socially acceptable.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ursula returns home, telling Millie about her time with Fred. She says she is a bit disappointed, though; she wanted something “transcendent,” but instead she and Fred had an unpleasant conversation and simply parted ways. Millie then runs Ursula (and the dog) a bath, as she’s still covered in dust and dirt.
Even though Ursula is somewhat disappointed in her experience with Fred, it is notable that the relatively casual sex between them—as compared to the traditional norm of sex only when one is married—is available to them only because of the disruption of the war.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon