This is a stylish, thoughtful, engrossing novel, a meditation on consciousness and consequences. Ursula Todd, born to English upper class parents on a snowy night in 1910, is reborn and dies again and again, living through and with various incidents, chief among them World War II.
Some chapters are lengthy, some just a few paragraphs. All are in Atkinson’s best prose: sharp dialogue, well-drawn scenes, deep insights into characters. The beginning chapter sets the central conflict: Ursula assassinates Adolf Hitler in a cafe in 1930. But of course we all know that didn’t happen. HOW it didn’t come to happen is Atkinson’s central theme; WHY remains a mystery that we get closer to as we fall deeper into the novel’s spell: in the next chapter, Ursula is born and dies, choked by her own umbilical cord. In the next chapter, she lives, and so on.
This is a historical novel that is deeply modern, a novel that plunges you fully into sometimes kaleidoscopic scenes, never missing a beat while shifting from a leafy village to a dismal flat in post-war London. It is full of witty, fully-fleshed characters who rotate around the sometimes bemused, sometimes take-charge Ursula. We have all wondered, “What if…” I had taken that train, that class, that spouse…this novel answers those questions in a fascinating, absorbing read.