Life After Life

Life After Life

by

Kate Atkinson

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

Summary
Analysis
Ursula is in Hyde Park, working with a rescue team from the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) department to help recover people from the wreckage of bombings. As bombs and fires explode around her, Ursula can smell death and decay in the air—scents which had also mixed with her hair, her skin, and her lungs.
Ursula has returned to England, perhaps understanding now that trying to escape the war is truly impossible, and her new mission to improve people’s lives within it.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
Ursula looks around; the street is unrecognizable. She and others form a human chain to climb to the top of the piles of rubble and excavate the debris from them. The men at the top listen and look for signs of life within. It often seems hopeless, but Ursula knows that people often live and die in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Ursula constantly puts herself in the line of fire and must deal with devastating conditions as a result of the war. No longer trying to hide away at all costs, Ursula sees the effects of the war in full view, on neighborhood-wide scales.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Ursula’s fellow ARP wardens are “a mixed bunch”: the senior warden, Miss Woolf, is a retired hospital matron. Her deputy, Mr. Durkin, is a retired English teacher. Mr. Simms had worked for the Ministry of Supply; Mr. Palmer is a bank manager. Mr. Armitage had been an opera singer. Mr. Bullock is a competitive wrestler and a denizen of several nightclubs; Herr Zimmerman is an orchestra violinist and a refugee from Berlin.
The wide-ranging fields of Ursula’s fellow wardens show the ways in which society has become completely broken. People are no longer able to carry on their normal jobs in the face of large-scale crisis, and so instead they confront the war in the only way that they can—rescuing other civilians from the bombings.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
The group had commandeered a Methodist hall to use as their post, furnished with a few camp beds, a small stove, and an assortment of chairs. They are all part-time volunteers except for Miss Woolf. They have to know the occupants of every building in their sector and where they shelter. They also patrol the streets and do first-aid exercises together.
Even places that have been untouched by the war damage slowly become repurposed by the war anyway, as it becomes necessary to put up temporary emergency camps.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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The first serious incident the squad attended had been at a large house that had received a direct hit. The two families in the house had all survived the blast, but the main water pipe and a sewage pipe fractured, and everyone in the cellar drowned. They had almost recovered a woman who had clung to the walls of the cellar, but unable to grasp Ursula’s hand, she had disappeared beneath the water. When they finally pumped out the place, fifteen bodies (including seven children) were recovered. Ursula had vomited long before then.
The first incident Ursula encounters becomes a brutal initiation into the devastation of war. Ursula is greatly affected by the woman whose hand she is unable to grasp, viewing once again how the line between living and dying can be exceptionally fine. But gradually, Ursula’s horror in the face of these kinds of casualties becomes almost completely numb, because she sees so much of it.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
In the present, Miss Woolf calls Ursula over to a hole in another mound of rubble, where someone small can wriggle through. Ursula goes in, looking around to try to see if anyone is there. She catches sight of a man, but can see that part of his head is missing. Ursula crawls out of the hole, reporting no one alive.
In contrast to Ursula’s description of the cellar incident, she is almost completely unphased by this man’s gruesome injury, implying the amount of human damage that Ursula has already seen in a short time period.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
In the course of a few hours, Ursula splints a broken arm, bandages a head wound, and patches an eye. She labels two unconscious survivors and their injuries, and several dead, making sure to send the correct bodies to the hospital and the mortuary, respectively.
Death and injury are so commonplace for Ursula that she has to double check to make sure that she has not misidentified anyone as having died, or having survived.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
As daylight breaks, Ursula sees that the whole street is more or less gone. At a large pile of debris, she can see a woman being extricated by a rope. She is alive, but only just. Ursula also sees the man with part of his head missing from the previous night, recognizing him as a neighbor. She has lost her pen and paper so instead she uses the lipstick she has, writing his name and address on his arm in blood red lipstick.
As Ursula pointed out in the previous chapter, the war has made death commonplace and also made lives cheap. Ursula labels the man from the previous night as though he is a set of goods or a lost package to be returned home.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Ursula starts to walk home and discovers Miss Woolf giving commands to people, still cheerful—even though Ursula has no idea when she last slept. She respects Miss Woolf immensely. Ursula returns to the apartment she shares with Millie in Phillimore Gardens, but realizes almost immediately that she has to go to work, where she logs the Incident Reports from the previous night.
Ursula is forced to confront the war not only at night in its visceral horrors, but also during the day in its sanitized statistics, as it infiltrates every aspect of her life and the lives of those around her.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
That Saturday, Ursula goes to Fox Corner and shares a nice dinner with Pamela and Sylvie. For most of the dinner, Hugh is investigating an unexploded bomb in a neighboring field. Ursula finds Pamela drained by taking care of her four boys, as well as two evacuees. Sylvie, on the other hand, is animated by the war—growing more food than ever in the garden and even joining in a black market for different fresh goods.
Ursula gets a small break from the war when she returns home and spends time with her family, but the war’s consequences have also reached Fox Corner, as Pamela and Sylvie have had to vastly alter their lives during the war as well.
Themes
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Hugh returns, and he and Sylvie start to quarrel, as Sylvie asks whether Hugh still lives there because she never sees him. Ursula changes the subject by blurting out that she is dating a young man named Ralph. Ursula tells them about Ralph, and when Sylvie and Hugh leave the table to do other activities, Ursula confesses to Pamela that she likes him a great deal—though they haven’t had sex.
Hugh and Sylvie’s squabble becomes particularly upsetting to Ursula after Hugh has passed away, as Ursula views Sylvie as needlessly cold to Hugh. Thus, even though in this timeline, Ursula and Sylvie are on good terms, Sylvie’s coldness towards most of her family still comes through.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
Later, Hugh and Ursula share a drink as they talk about the worsening conditions in London and all across Europe. He then walks her to the train station, flashlight in hand, and Ursula tells him that the rescue squads are superstitious about lights. Hugh confesses that he had a friend in the trenches who lit a match and got his head shot off by a German sniper. He tells her to “keep her head below the parapet and her light under a bushel”; he would rather she were a coward than dead.
Hugh’s advice is meant to help keep Ursula safe, but Ursula, following her life in Germany, understands the value of being an active agent and not passively allowing atrocities to continue—something that motivates her a great deal in the final chapters of the novel when she kills Hitler.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
At the station, Ursula says goodbye to Hugh, promising to take care of herself. Fred Smith offers Ursula a ride, though he only has an engine without carriages, and so she must ride on the footplate of the train. It doesn’t cross her mind that she would never see her father again. The ride back is terrifying, hot, and sooty, but Ursula makes it back in one piece.
Ultimately, Hugh’s brief interaction with Ursula again highlights his deep affection for her, as he merely wants her to be safe in the war. This is the last interaction that Ursula has with her father, and it sums up their relationship well.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
Fred walks Ursula to the front gates of King’s Cross, and she remembers having a crush on Fred in her youth. He tells her that he’s about to start serving in the fire department in London. When he leaves her at the gates, Ursula walks home in the blackout. She bumps into a woman, and they walk together for about half a mile or so. After the woman leaves, Ursula bumps into a man, locking arms with him and walking together until Hyde Park—something she would never have done prior to the war.
Ursula’s interactions with the man walking home in the blackout demonstrates how the war has not only brought the battlefield to civilian cities, but also how these trying times of crisis can fundamentally change social norms. Ursula would never lock arms with a strange man, but she seems to understand that any possible outcome of this interaction would pale in comparison to the horrors of war.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon