If you could travel back in time and kill Hitler, would you? Of course you would.
Atkinson’s (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and—in this instance—our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion. In one moment, for example, the conversation turns to a child who has died; reminds Ursula, our heroine, “Your daughter....She fell in the fire,” an event the child’s poor mother gainsays: “ ‘I only ever had Derek,’ she concluded firmly.” Ah, but there’s the rub with alternate realities, all of which, Atkinson suggests, can be folded up into the same life so that all are equally real. Besides, it affords several opportunities to do old Adolf in, what with his “funny little flap of the hand backward so that he looked as if he were cupping his ear to hear them better” and all.
Provocative, entertaining and beautifully written. It’s not quite the tour de force that her Case Histories (2004) was, but this latest affords the happy sight of seeing Atkinson stretch out into speculative territory again.