First Reads
6:03 am
Thu March 28, 2013

Exclusive First Read: Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life'

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On a snowy night in 1910, a baby girl is born — and dies before she can take her first breath. She is born — and grows up to become an assassin who eliminates Hitler before he can take power. She is born — and lives a handful of different lives in a Britain descending into war; the book jumps from one narrative to another with a dreamy sort of logic. "Time isn't circular," she tells a therapist at one point. "It's like a ... palimpsest. ... And sometimes memories are in the future." She is Ursula Beresford Todd — known to her banker father as Little Bear — the heroine of Kate Atkinson's new novel, Life After Life, and in this exclusive excerpt, she's about to be born. Life After Life will be published April 2.


Snow

11 February 1910

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.

No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.

Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thou­sand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.

Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

Dr. Fellowes should have been here," Sylvie moaned. "Why isn't he here yet? Where is he?" Big dewdrop pearls of sweat on her skin, a horse nearing the end of a hard race. The bedroom fire stoked like a ship's furnace. The thick brocade curtains drawn tightly against the enemy, the night. The black bat.

"Yer man'll be stuck in the snow, I expect, ma'am. It's sure dreadful wild out there. The road will be closed."

Sylvie and Bridget were alone in their ordeal. Alice, the parlor maid, was visiting her sick mother. And Hugh, of course, was chas­ing down Isobel, his wild goose of a sister, à Paris. Sylvie had no wish to involve Mrs. Glover, snoring in her attic room like a truf­fling hog. Sylvie imagined she would conduct proceedings like a parade-ground sergeant major. The baby was early. Sylvie was expecting it to be late like the others. The best-laid plans, and so on.

"Oh, ma'am," Bridget cried suddenly, "she's all blue, so she is."

"A girl?"

"The cord's wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She's been strangled, the poor wee thing."

"Not breathing? Let me see her. We must do something. What can we do?"

"Oh, Mrs. Todd, ma'am, she's gone. Dead before she had a chance to live. I'm awful, awful sorry. She'll be a little cherub in heaven now, for sure. Oh, I wish Mr. Todd was here. I'm awful sorry. Shall I wake Mrs. Glover?"

The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped sud­denly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.

Darkness fell.

Snow

11 February 1910

"For God's sake, girl, stop running around like a headless chicken and fetch some hot water and towels. Do you know nothing? Were you raised in a field?"

"Sorry, sir." Bridget dipped an apologetic curtsy as if Dr. Fel­lowes were minor royalty.

"A girl, Dr. Fellowes? May I see her?"

"Yes, Mrs. Todd, a bonny, bouncing baby girl." Sylvie thought Dr. Fellowes might be over-egging the pudding with his allitera­tion. He was not one for bonhomie at the best of times. The health of his patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him.

"She would have died from the cord around her neck. I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time. Literally." Dr. Fellowes held up his surgical scissors for Sylvie's admiration. They were small and neat and their sharp points curved upward at the end. "Snip, snip," he said. Sylvie made a mental note, a small, vague one, given her exhaustion and the circumstances of it, to buy just such a pair of scissors, in case of similar emergency. (Unlikely, it was true.) Or a knife, a good sharp knife to be carried on one's person at all times, like the robber girl in The Snow Queen.

"You were lucky I got here in time," Dr. Fellowes said. "Before the snow closed the roads. I called for Mrs. Haddock, the midwife, but I believe she is stuck somewhere outside Chalfont St. Peter."

"Mrs. Haddock?" Sylvie said and frowned. Bridget laughed out loud and then quickly mumbled, "Sorry, sorry, sir." Sylvie sup­posed that she and Bridget were both on the edge of hysteria. Hardly surprising.

"Bog Irish," Dr. Fellowes muttered.

"Bridget's only a scullery maid, a child herself. I am very grate­ful to her. It all happened so quickly." Sylvie thought how much she wanted to be alone, how she was never alone. "You must stay until morning, I suppose, doctor," she said reluctantly.

"Well, yes, I suppose I must," Dr. Fellowes said, equally reluctantly.

Sylvie sighed and suggested that he help himself to a glass of brandy in the kitchen. And perhaps some ham and pickles. "Bridget will see to you." She wanted rid of him. He had delivered all three (three!) of her children and she did not like him one bit. Only a husband should see what he saw. Pawing and poking with his instruments in her most delicate and secretive places. (But would she rather have a midwife called Mrs. Haddock deliver her child?) Doctors for women should all be women themselves. Little chance of that.

Dr. Fellowes lingered, humming and hawing, overseeing the washing and wrapping of the new arrival by a hot-faced Bridget. Bridget was the eldest of seven so she knew how to swaddle an infant. She was fourteen years old, ten years younger than Sylvie. When Sylvie was fourteen she was still in short skirts, in love with her pony, Tiffin. Had no idea where babies came from, even on her wedding night she remained baffled. Her mother, Lottie, had hinted but had fallen shy of anatomical exactitude. Conjugal rela­tions between man and wife seemed, mysteriously, to involve larks soaring at daybreak. Lottie was a reserved woman. Some might have said narcoleptic. Her husband, Sylvie's father, Llewellyn Beres­ford, was a famous society artist but not at all Bohemian. No nudity or louche behavior in his household. He had painted Queen Alex­andra, when she was still a princess. Said she was very pleasant.

They lived in a good house in Mayfair, while Tiffin was stabled in a mews near Hyde Park. In darker moments, Sylvie was wont to cheer herself up by imagining that she was back there in the sunny past, sitting neatly in her side-saddle on Tiffin's broad little back, trotting along Rotten Row on a clean spring morning, the blossom bright on the trees.

"How about some hot tea and a nice bit of buttered toast, Mrs. Todd?" Bridget said.

"That would be lovely, Bridget."

The baby, bandaged like a Pharaonic mummy, was finally passed to Sylvie. Softly, she stroked the peachy cheek and said, "Hello, little one," and Dr. Fellowes turned away so as not to be a witness to such syrupy demonstrations of affection. He would have all chil­dren brought up in a new Sparta if it were up to him.

"Well, perhaps a little cold collation wouldn't go amiss," he said. "Is there, by chance, any of Mrs. Glover's excellent piccalilli?"

Four Seasons Fill the Measure of the Year

11 February 1910

Sylvie was woken by a dazzling sliver of sunlight piercing the cur­tains like a shining silver sword. She lay languidly in lace and cash­mere as Mrs. Glover came into the room, proudly bearing a huge breakfast tray. Only an occasion of some importance seemed capa­ble of drawing Mrs. Glover this far out of her lair. A single, half-frozen snowdrop drooped in the bud vase on the tray. "Oh, a snowdrop!" Sylvie said. "The first flower to raise its poor head above the ground. How brave it is!"

Mrs. Glover, who did not believe that flowers were capable of courage, or indeed any other character trait, laudable or otherwise, was a widow who had only been with them at Fox Corner a few weeks. Before her advent there had been a woman called Mary who slouched a great deal and burned the roasts. Mrs. Glover tended, if anything, to undercook food. In the prosperous house­hold of Sylvie's childhood, Cook was called "Cook" but Mrs. Glover preferred "Mrs. Glover." It made her irreplaceable. Sylvie still stubbornly thought of her as Cook.

"Thank you, Cook." Mrs. Glover blinked slowly like a lizard. "Mrs. Glover," Sylvie corrected herself.

Mrs. Glover set the tray down on the bed and opened the cur­tains. The light was extraordinary, the black bat vanquished.

"So bright," Sylvie said, shielding her eyes.

"So much snow," Mrs. Glover said, shaking her head in what could have been wonder or aversion. It was not always easy to tell with Mrs. Glover.

"Where is Dr. Fellowes?" Sylvie asked.

"There was an emergency. A farmer trampled by a bull."

"How dreadful."

"Some men came from the village and tried to dig his automo­bile out but in the end my George came and gave him a ride."

"Ah," Sylvie said, as if suddenly understanding something that had puzzled her.

"And they call it horsepower," Mrs. Glover snorted, bull-like herself. "That's what comes of relying on newfangled machines."

"Mm," Sylvie said, reluctant to argue with such strongly held views. She was surprised that Dr. Fellowes had left without exam­ining either herself or the baby.

"He looked in on you. You were asleep," Mrs. Glover said. Sylvie sometimes wondered if Mrs. Glover was a mind reader. A perfectly horrible thought.

"He ate his breakfast first," Mrs. Glover said, displaying both approval and disapproval in the same breath. "The man has an appetite, that's for sure."

"I could eat a horse," Sylvie laughed. She couldn't, of course. Tiffin popped briefly into her mind. She picked up the silver cut­lery, heavy like weapons, ready to tackle Mrs. Glover's devilled kidneys. "Lovely," she said (were they?) but Mrs. Glover was already busy inspecting the baby in the cradle. ("Plump as a suck­ling pig.") Sylvie idly wondered if Mrs. Haddock was still stuck somewhere outside Chalfont St. Peter.

"I hear the baby nearly died," Mrs. Glover said.

"Well..." Sylvie said. Such a fine line between living and dying. Her own father, the society portraitist, slipped on an Isfahan rug on a first-floor landing after some fine cognac one evening. The next morning he was discovered dead at the foot of the stairs. No one had heard him fall or cry out. He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously.

Afterward it turned out that he had been more profligate with his money than mother and daughter realized. A secret gambler, markers all over town. He had made no provision at all for unex­pected death and soon there were creditors crawling over the nice house in Mayfair. A house of cards as it turned out. Tiffin had to go. Broke Sylvie's heart, the grief greater than any she felt for her father.

"I thought his only vice was women," her mother said, roosting temporarily on a packing case as if modeling for a pietà.

They sank into genteel and well-mannered poverty. Sylvie's mother grew pale and uninteresting, larks soared no more for her as she faded, consumed by consumption. Seventeen-year-old Syl­vie was rescued from becoming an artist's model by a man she met at the post office counter. Hugh. A rising star in the prosperous world of banking. The epitome of bourgeois respectability. What more could a beautiful but penniless girl hope for?

Lottie died with less fuss than was expected and Hugh and Syl­vie married quietly on Sylvie's eighteenth birthday. ("There," Hugh said, "now you will never forget the anniversary of our mar­riage.") They spent their honeymoon in France, a delightful quinzaine in Deauville, before settling in semirural bliss near Beaconsfield in a house that was vaguely Lutyens in style. It had everything one could ask for — a large kitchen, a drawing room with French win­dows onto the lawn, a pretty morning room and several bedrooms waiting to be filled with children. There was even a little room at the back of the house for Hugh to use as a study. "Ah, my growl­ery," he laughed.

It was surrounded at a discreet distance by similar houses. There was a meadow and a copse and a bluebell wood beyond with a stream running through it. The train station, no more than a halt, would allow Hugh to be at his banker's desk in less than an hour.

"Sleepy hollow," Hugh laughed as he gallantly carried Sylvie across the threshold. It was a relatively modest dwelling (nothing like Mayfair) but nonetheless a little beyond their means, a fiscal recklessness that surprised them both.

***

We should give the house a name," Hugh said. "The Laurels, the Pines, the Elms."

"But we have none of those in the garden," Sylvie pointed out. They were standing at the French windows of the newly purchased house, looking at a swath of overgrown lawn. "We must get a gar­dener," Hugh said. The house itself was echoingly empty. They had not yet begun to fill it with the Voysey rugs and Morris fabrics and all the other aesthetic comforts of a twentieth-century house. Sylvie would have quite happily lived in Liberty's rather than the as-yet-to-be-named marital home.

"Greenacres, Fairview, Sunnymead?" Hugh offered, putting his arm around his bride.

"No."

The previous owner of their unnamed house had sold up and gone to live in Italy. "Imagine," Sylvie said dreamily. She had been to Italy when she was younger, a grand tour with her father while her mother went to Eastbourne for her lungs.

"Full of Italians," Hugh said dismissively.

"Quite. That's rather the attraction," Sylvie said, unwinding herself from his arm.

"The Gables, the Homestead?"

"Do stop," Sylvie said.

A fox appeared out of the shrubbery and crossed the lawn. "Oh, look," Sylvie said. "How tame it seems, it must have grown used to the house being unoccupied."

"Let's hope the local hunt isn't following on its heels," Hugh said. "It's a scrawny beast."

"It's a vixen. She's a nursing mother, you can see her teats."

Hugh blinked at such blunt terminology falling from the lips of his recently virginal bride. (One presumed. One hoped.)

"Look," Sylvie whispered. Two small cubs sprang out onto the grass and tumbled over each other in play. "Oh, they're such hand­some little creatures!"

"Some might say vermin."

"Perhaps they see us as verminous," Sylvie said. "Fox Corner — that's what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn't that be the point?"

"Really?" Hugh said doubtfully. "It's a little whimsical, isn't it? It sounds like a children's story. The House at Fox Corner."

"A little whimsy never hurt anyone."

"Strictly speaking though," Hugh said, "can a house be a corner? Isn't it at one?" So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.

Two small children peered cautiously round the door. "Here you are," Sylvie said, smiling. "Maurice, Pamela, come and say hello to your new sister."

Warily, they approached the cradle and its contents as if unsure as to what it might contain. Sylvie remembered a similar feeling when viewing her father's body in its elaborate oak-and-brass cof­fin (charitably paid for by fellow members of the Royal Academy). Or perhaps it was Mrs. Glover they were chary of.

"Another girl," Maurice said gloomily. He was five, two years older than Pamela and the man of the family for as long as Hugh was away. "On business," Sylvie informed people although in fact he had crossed the Channel posthaste to rescue his foolish youngest sister from the clutches of the married man with whom she had eloped to Paris.

Maurice poked a finger in the baby's face and she woke up and squawked in alarm. Mrs. Glover pinched Maurice's ear. Sylvie winced but Maurice accepted the pain stoically. Sylvie thought that she really must have a word with Mrs. Glover when she was feeling stronger.

"What are you going to call her?" Mrs. Glover asked.

"Ursula," Sylvie said. "I shall call her Ursula. It means little she-bear."

Mrs. Glover nodded noncommittally. The middle classes were a law unto themselves. Her own strapping son was a straightforward George. "Tiller of the soil, from the Greek," according to the vicar who christened him and George was indeed a plowman on the nearby Ettringham Hall estate farm, as if the very naming of him had formed his destiny. Not that Mrs. Glover was much given to thinking about destiny. Or Greeks, for that matter.

"Well, must be getting on," Mrs. Glover said. "There'll be a nice steak pie for lunch. And an Egyptian pudding to follow."

Sylvie had no idea what an Egyptian pudding was. She imagined pyramids.

"We all have to keep up our strength," Mrs. Glover said.

"Yes indeed," Sylvie said. "I should probably feed Ursula again for just the same reason!" She was irritated by her own invisible exclamation mark. For reasons she couldn't quite fathom, Sylvie often found herself impelled to adopt an overly cheerful tone with Mrs. Glover, as if trying to restore some kind of natural balance of humors in the world.

Mrs. Glover couldn't suppress a slight shudder at the sight of Syl­vie's pale, blue-veined breasts surging forth from her foamy lace peignoir. She hastily shooed the children ahead of her out of the room. "Porridge," she announced grimly to them.

"God surely wanted this baby back," Bridget said when she came in later that morning with a cup of steaming beef tea.

"We have been tested," Sylvie said, "and found not wanting."

"This time," Bridget said.

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