Fresh from the excellent Life After Life (2013), Atkinson takes another sidelong look at the natures of time and reality in this imaginative novel, her ninth.
Transpose Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to the skies over Europe in World War II, and you’ll have some idea of the territory in which Atkinson is working. Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life, returns, appearing from time to time at just the right moments, in the manner of a chorus. The lead in this story, though, is her brother Teddy, who, having survived both childhood and the air war, is now disillusioned—“The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination”—and suffering from more than a little guilt that he lives while so many others do not. If Bierce might be a silent presence in the proceedings, so too might be The Best Years of Our Lives, which treats just that issue—save that we know how things turned out for the players in William Wyler’s 1946 film, whereas Atkinson constantly keeps us guessing, the story looping over itself in time (“This was when people still believed in the dependable nature of time—a past, a present, a future—the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on”) and presenting numerous possibilities for how Teddy’s life might unfold depending on the choices he makes, to say nothing of things well beyond his control. Atkinson’s narrative is without some of the showy pyrotechnics of its predecessor. Instead, it quietly, sometimes dolefully looks in on the players as, shell-shocked by a war that has dislocated whole generations and nations, they go about trying to refashion their lives and, of course, regretting things done, not done, and undone as they do.
But do we really have just one life, as Ursula insists? It’s a point worth pondering. A grown-up, elegant fairy tale, at least of a kind, with a humane vision of people in all their complicated splendor.