At over 500 pages, I expected to need the entirety of a week if not more to make it through this novel. It took me about 4 days, and would have taken less if family and work hadn’t interfered. It is truly a spellbinding novel about reincarnation, practice making perfect and going back to do it over until you get it right (if you can).
The story begins with Ursula Todd attempting to assassinate Hitler in 1930. She dies and returns to her birth in February 1911 at the family home in the English countryside. I didn’t keep count of how many times Ursula dies and reboots, but with each life/death cycle, she learns something to help her the next time around. She doesn’t exactly remember her past lives, but she experiences strong deja vu which impels her toward specific actions and away from certain dangers. Ursula’s life encompasses the two world wars and her choices in each life have implications for the lives of family and neighbors as well as herself. She transforms from a naive and somewhat dull witted Ursula to a sharp, focused and purpose-driven woman. A few of her lives were extraordinarily depressing and, now that I think of it, were lives in which she was married.
Among the constant members of her life circles are her parents and siblings, the maid and cook, her eccentric aunt Izzie and neighbors from her village. Despite the reincarnations, the family dynamics don’t really change. Father Hugh is a prosperous banker who fought in WWI, mother Sylvie married young and is still pained by the recollection of her own family’s losses, sister Pamela is a close friend while eldest brother Maurice is a pompous and aggressive lout, and younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy are loved, lovable and doted upon. Izzie’s circumstances change sometimes but her character does not. She is the free spirit who defies convention and annoys the rest of the family.
Another recurring character is Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist who treats Ursula when she is young. The reasons for this visit change depending on Ursula’s life — either she has engaged in an action that shocks her parents or she simply behaves strangely, showing signs of what the Irish maid calls a sixth sense. It is Kellet who introduces the concept of reincarnation to Ursula and seems to provide her with genuine help.
Atkinson’s writing is colorful and detailed, and despite the repetition of Ursula’s lives, never becomes boring or predictable. The description of life in London during the blitz is fascinating and terrifying. Ursula becomes involved in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and is on the scene when buildings have been reduced to rubble and bodies are being recovered — a horrifying and dangerous business.
… a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by these small reminders of domestic life … than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms.
I was completely engrossed by this novel. The idea of having a chance to “re do” and change history for the better is attractive. As Ursula tells Teddy, “We can never get it right, but we must try.”