What if there were second and third chances, in fact an infinite number of chances to live your life. Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. Ursula Todd is born on February 11th 1910. The doctor and midwife are stuck in the snow and the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. We feel the panic of “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.” A small taster of how beautifully this book is written.
The story starts with Ursula Todd, the protagonist, attempting to assassinate Hitler in 1930 in a Munich cafe with her father's Great War revolver; the SS draw their pistols and aim at Ursula, darkness falls. Soon after Atkinson reverts to Ursula's birth. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born in the Todd family home, Fox Corner, but this time help is on hand, Dr Fellowes has made it, he cuts the cord, and all is well. There are many deaths or near deaths – the cat falls asleep on baby Ursula's face and suffocates her, but, inventing mouth-to mouth-resuscitation, her mother Sylvie saves her. As a toddler Ursula is swept away by a tide in Cornwall, never to be seen again, but later she reappears in the narrative. Each time Ursula is reborn, she tries to prevent the traumas of previous lives. She’s not exactly conscious of what’s been before, but she feels looming dread and déjà vu.
You would be forgiven for thinking it would be tedious to keep reading the story of one life over and over, but the author’s skill only builds the knowledge of and affection for the characters, they are all immensely likeable. Although I was slightly confused at first I quickly became absorbed with this great family saga.
Atkinson’s genius creation of home-counties domesticity, changing times, the faltering class system, the horrors of war and much more is nothing short of brilliance. I urge you to read this book, it is truly delightful.