Ursula Todd is born and dies during a snowstorm in England in 1910. The next time she is born in that snowstorm, circumstances change and she lives. And so Kate Atkinson’s compelling novel bears witness to a life and the ability to change it, given a second (or third, or more) chance. Although Ursula dies at the end of each version of her life, she manages to change the outcome the next time around, as one avoided or changed moment dictates a whole different path. It’s a complex idea that Atkinson renders with feminist flare, dealing with rape, spousal abuse, abortion, suffragettes, and more in the context of Ursula’s different paths. We follow her through World War II and watch as the English keep calm and carry on, which Atkinson also shows with humor and style. Slightly elegiac, her writing is descriptive and also provocative: “Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.” The nonlinear story is hauntingly beautiful and somehow progresses through time—a difficult and original feat. Once I found the rhythm of the writing, I didn’t want the story to end.
By Elizabeth Ziff