Would she really be able to come back and start again? Or was it, as everyone told her, and as she must believe, all in her head? And so what if it was – wasn’t everything in her head real too? [loc. 2437]A snowy night in the early years of the 20th century. Sylvie hopes the doctor will arrive in time. Will her daughter Ursula live or die?
But time's a loop, and though one Ursula dies at birth (for lack of a pair of surgical scissors to snip the strangling umbilical), others survive the experience.
It turns out there are many, many ways that a little girl (and, eventually, a grown woman) can die. And a great many other terrible things that can befall her.
The surprising thing, perhaps, is that Ursula starts to remember:
They mustn’t go downstairs. They mustn’t see Bridget. Ursula didn’t know why this was so, where this awful sense of dread came from, but she pulled the blankets over her head to hide from whatever was out there. She hoped it was out there and not inside her. [loc. 1047]Aware of previous deaths, she becomes determined to survive, though she has no idea of what is happening to her, or why, or why she alone has this gift or curse.
Habituees of the alt.hist genre will quickly appreciate that Ursula, forearmed with knowledge of the future, might set out to change history. I don't think that's supposed to be a surprise: it's foreshadowed several times. What sets this book apart from a run-of-the-mill alternate history or time-travel narrative is Kate Atkinson's writing. Ursula is not an especially likeable character (though much more accessible than her mother, Sylvie) but she's so resilient and indomitable -- and her experience is at once representative of 20th-century Englishwomen, and uniquely filtered by her sense of deja vu -- that she is a fascinating protagonist.
Some of her experiences are shocking or incomprehensible to me. (This is not the airbrushed heroic Blitz Spirit.) Other aspects resonate uncomfortably: Ursula's anxiety that she's "a magnet for unsavoury types ... and worried that they could read something in her that she couldn’t read herself." [loc. 4413] And her sense of inadequacy: why is she coming back again and again, if she can't make a difference? Is she somehow responsible? Or is she simply not up to the challenge?
The reason for, the cause of, the timeloop is never made clear. I think there are hints, though. And I don't think it's only Ursula. And that makes me dizzy, makes the novel a bleaker reality. But Kate Atkinson manages to inject humour into the grimmest of predicaments: there's also beauty, in Ursula's relationship with her sister Pamela, and in the moments when she glimpses the darkness about to fall, about to reach out and embrace her.
She had become almost indifferent to death. Her soft soul had crystallized. (Just as well, she thought.) She was a sword tempered in the fire. And again she was somewhere else, a little flicker in time.[loc. 5801]