If it is only at its end that a life becomes possessed of shape and definition, that it can be seen in terms of achievement and happiness or the lack of it, then whatever final form it will seem to have taken will be mostly a product of accident. What if things had been different? What if the weather had prevented the doctor from arriving in time to aid a difficult birth? What if I had chosen a different college and never met the love of my life? What if she had? A tiny shift—the fabled flutter of a butterfly’s wings—and everything is changed.
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, explores the “what ifs?” of a life. Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910, dies repeatedly through the novel: first at birth, again at sea, again off a rooftop, again of the Spanish influenza, again in Nazi Germany, and again in many and various other ways that it would spoil the delight of the story tolist. But she is also born again—or, rather, she both dies and is saved from those deaths by minute shifts of circumstance. Just the way life is, except that we don’t get to see how our lives would have developed if things had been just a tiny bit different.
Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His latest book is A Council That Will Never End: Lumen Gentium and the Church Today (Liturgical Press, 2013).