Life After Life – A Review
I recently read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and loved it. I loved it almost as much as I hated it. I loved it for the characters, the narrative, the way she has used her words. I hated it because I cried for two straight days after reading it and it took me to a place I never ever wanted to go back to. You see, this book explores the many directions your life can take depending on the decisions you make.
The main character, Ursula, is born and reborn multiple times throughout the book, and in every life she manages to avoid the catastrophe of the previous one by taking preventative measures. When she drowns to her death in one life, she avoids the sea in the next. When she dies of influenza in one life, she ensures she doesn’t come into contact with the infection in the next. When she falls off the roof in one life, she stays away from it in the next. When she dies during the Blitz in one life, she kills Hitler in the next. And when she is raped in one life, she punches the would-be rapist in the next, and so manages to avoid the pregnancy and botched up abortion of the previous life, the abusive husband and the accompanying feelings of shame and guilt. One punch is all it takes.
My guess is that anyone who has been raped or abused will be no stranger to the futile exercise of trying to pinpoint exactly that moment, or that decision, or that word said or unsaid, that would have changed it all. This may be a generalisation and everyone is different, but I know that in my case it is true. I have spent hours, months and years, picking it apart, and trying to remember - maybe if I had said ‘no’ at that point, maybe if I had said ‘no’ earlier. Maybe if I had told someone, the abuse would have stopped after the first few times and not have gone on for as long as it did. Maybe if I had been sleeping in a different room, on a different bed. Maybe if I hadn’t been playing that stupid game with him, maybe if I hadn’t laughed when he made that silly joke in that silly voice. Maybe if I had gone to sleep on time like I was supposed to. But of course now I know - what it needed was a punch.
In fairness to Kate Atkinson, I don’t think she meant to victim blame or to put the responsibility on Ursula. This section of the book was the same as any other in which one action changed the whole course of the character’s life. A punch doesn’t save you from rape and killing Hitler would not necessarily have avoided the war. But that still doesn’t make it okay.
Theorising about what-ifs is one thing when you are talking about influenza or WWII and an entirely different thing when you are talking about rape in a society which constantly tells you that you should have done something differently. Even the slight implication that you could have avoided being raped and that the mess your life has become is because YOU did not take action is heartbreaking at best and life threatening at worst. The implicit victim blaming it contains is non-intentional - I have no doubt about that - but it is a reflection of the world we live in.
Reading this brilliant, beautiful book made me desperately sad and horribly bitter. It didn’t make me sad because of the victim blaming or its contribution to rape culture. It made me sad for purely personal selfish reasons. It made me sad because every day is a struggle for me and every day is a fight. Almost fourteen years after the physical reality of the abuse ended, my nightmare is far from over. I still see it happen, I still live through it and in spite of that, as hard as it is to go on sometimes, I do it.
I have spent years trying to accept the fact that it happened and to stop revisiting it to see what I could have changed. Reading this one chapter took me back several years, back to wondering what could have been. To read about how completely her life changed, how she went from the life I know, a life of shame, guilt, isolation and loneliness to another life where she is strong and confident and carefree, broke my heart and made me long for a life I could have had.
It was that easy for her and there is NOTHING easy about any of this.
To imply that a punch could have changed it, that that is ALL it could have taken feels like a personal insult to me and to the battles I, and others like me, fight every single day.
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I loved this – we see victim blaming so often, that it almost passes us by in the haze of ‘ordinary life’. Thanks for noticing this, and for writing for us. It’s a great piece.