Kate Atkinson's Life after Life and the Ultimate Chocolate Cake
My small girl was born half-strangled, the umbilical cord wrapped four times around her neck. Unlike the birth days of my other children, it’s not a memory I like to revisit. What-ifs crowded so closely against reality that I can’t think about what happened without also re-living the nightmare of what nearly happened. My small girl was born on moon-landing day, July 20th, – a date of infinite possibilities.
But that’s just me wittering on. Good books bring things up, don’t they? Emotions and memories rise up from their quiet hiding places. That is where we meet the author halfway. Great books are a two-way thing. The best books are those that let us know we are not alone.
Ursula Todd was born and died during a snowstorm on February 10th, 1910. Ursula Todd was born and almost died on a snowy night in February, 1910. This second time, the doctor arrives in the nick of time to snip the strangling cord from Ursula’s tiny neck. Ursula drowned in the June of her fifth summer on a beach holiday. Born again, she fell from the roof, and again, she contracted influenza...over and over again, each time something learned, altered, re-tuned or improved because in living, as in all things, ‘practice makes perfect.’
It’s not that the story changes in each re-telling – it’s just tilted slightly, viewed from a different angle so that it becomes clearer and not, as you might expect, more complicated. Initially, Ursula has no conscious awareness of re-living her life.
‘The past was a jumble in her mind.’
The Irish maid believes that Ursula has ‘the second sight.’ She develops an intuition, learning to recognise the turning points on which a life can spin.
‘The great sense of dread had come over her and she had to do it.’
Ursula’s father accepts her, his little bear, exactly as she is, ‘I know she says the oddest things...she’s only small, she’s not defective,’ while her mother thinks, ‘she just needs a little fixing.’
Ursula’s psychiatrist tells her:
‘She wasn’t really dying and being reborn, he said, she just thought she was. Ursula couldn’t see what the difference was.’
Awareness grows so that Ursula learns to put shape on her life. The semi-opaque screen between lives cracks allowing Ursula to refine Heraclitus:
‘You can step in the same river but the water will always be new.’
The lives of Ursula Todd seem to expand before and beyond the covers of this book so that there is a sense that the author has pared back a mind-bending millefeuille of possibilities to a reasonably sized, if still quite challenging, layer cake. Kate Atkinson’s most remarkable achievement is not the creation of an astonishingly complex plot but rather the simplification of an almost indigestible idea.
In her notes on researching the book, the author writes that she wanted to create something ‘multi-layered and slightly fractal’ and so it is. Atkinson takes the reader on an astonishingly impressive exploration of the fourth dimension.
‘There was something hypnotic and dreamlike in returning endlessly, remorselessly (to 1910).’
The author’s skill is in making each dreamlike return as credible, as real, as the last.
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’ Ursula said,’ if just one small thing had changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’
‘Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?’ Ralph replied mildly.
Who amongst us hasn’t pondered that question, possibly the greatest ‘what if’ of the twentieth century? Was there a turning point that might have changed everything?
But then, how much do any of us truly care about great historical turning points? If, rather than rescuing the whole world, you could save just the one person you loved most in the world, if you had to choose, who would you save?
And then, reining our thoughts back to this life, there is the food. If you were searching (and, as it happens, I was) for one book to demonstrate the myriad functions of food in fiction, it would be difficult to find any better than this one.
The first and most obvious function of food in this, or any other book, is to make the characters human. They eat, they drink; they draw breath.
Atkinson’s bountiful care of Ursula begins on the day of her birth. Ursula is suckled, not by wet nurse, but at the breast of her own mother, Sylvia. Thus, this fictional baby is bonded to the real world and to that particular life while Sylvia is marked as wayward, unusual but practical. That’s a lot achieved in a small meal.
The author repeatedly defines her characters in terms of food. The doctor’s wife is:
‘a woman to whom nature has denied elegance and who always smelled vaguely of fried onions. Not necessarily a disagreeable thing.’
That appetising whiff of fried onions tells us all we need to know about the doctor, his wife and their relationship.
Mrs Glover, the cook, a target of some ridicule and little appreciation, is characterised by her efficiency and no-nonsense attitude to food:
‘Mrs Glover, her tongue now safely in the press, immediately began skinning the hare.’
Food is used as historical detail to evoke time and place. While Sylvia is offered the traditional post-natal reward of ‘some hot tea and a nice bit of buttered toast’, the doctor is hungry from his travails:
‘Perhaps a little cold collation wouldn’t go amiss,’ he said, ‘is there, by any chance, any of Mrs Glover’s excellent piccalilli?’
Atkinson, in just one sentence, has brought to mind a well-stocked larder of homemade preserves, a full-time cook employed to make said preserves and an era when a cold collation was a regular event.
Seasons are marked by their appropriate harvest. In June, Mrs Glover can be found ‘boiling up copper pans of raspberries from the garden.’ Septembers are ‘crisp as an apple,’ the essence of the reader’s remembered Septembers succinctly distilled into one imagined bite.
Food, or a dearth thereof, quite obviously distinguishes times of feast and famine. Fox Corner, Ursula’s home, the beating heart of England, is a place where no-one knows hunger. There is comfort, security and a provision for every eventuality.
‘They had a hen house now and a wired run on what was to have been an asparagus bed before the war.’
War-time Berlin, by contrast, was an altogether different kettle of fish. Food became impossibly scarce. Taken beyond hunger to starvation, Ursula, with ‘dreams full of meat’, for the first time in her many lives, chooses to bite down hard on death.
Most memorable and terrible of all the many meals mentioned in Life after Life is Mrs Glover’s veal cutlets à la Russe.
‘It was not one of the better dishes in Mrs Glover’s repertoire.’
The infamous dish is served on the same day that Ursula has her long hair cropped against her father’s wishes, clearly a turning point. The veal, bringing to mind a creature maltreated and slaughtered young, is compared unfavourably with the dog’s dinner.
Neither the dish nor the day is a good one but both return, nauseatingly, life after life. The veal à la Russe becomes a signpost in the story, like Hansel and Gretal’s breadcrumbs, reminding the reader exactly where they are. Events are altered but the veal cutlets remain a constant. In a book which slides back and forth in time, the meals become the markers.
Mrs Glover’s veal à la Russe may just be the cleverest plate of food in literature.
There can be no doubting Atkinson’s appreciation of food. A great, big cabbage is ‘a thing of beauty'. A burnt meringue is ‘the final casualty of war.’ My personal favourite is the dizzy aunt’s expression of my own daily desire:
‘I could demolish a scone.’
This is an author who understands that the food in books goes way beyond window-dressing. As a reviewer of fictional food, I feel that Ms Atkinson should be awarded at least three, fictional, Michelin stars.
When I read A God in Ruins, the companion book to Life after Life, I was compelled to make a Far Aux Pruneaux – a dish which Ursula’s brother, Teddy, had always longed for but never eaten. This time, I’ve chosen to revisit the day ticketed in Ursula’s memory as ‘Hugh’s sixtieth birthday,’ when Mrs Glover produced Duck à la surprise and a show-stopping cake.
‘An amnesty was brought about by the advent of the cake, an ingenious confection that, naturally relied mainly on eggs.’
It was a day when Ursula was struck with the notion that she was happy.
‘Or at any rate, she thought, qualifying the idea, as happy as was possible to be in this life.’
'Later, when she understood that it was the last time they would all be together, she wished she had paid more attention.’
And so, for Ursula Beresford Todd, stalwart to the last, and paying attention this time, I hope, here is the simplest and the best cake I know.
250g good quality dark chocolate
250g caster sugar
1 heaped tablespoon of flour.
The beauty of this cake is its simplicity. Everything happens in just one mixing bowl and there is no strenuous creaming or whisking required, just some relaxing stirring and gentle folding in.
Butter and flour a 26cm loose-bottomed springform tin and preheat your oven to 180˚C (320 Fahrenheit).
Break up the chocolate into a large mixing bowl and place it over a pot of barely simmering water to melt.
Add the sugar and stir it in.
Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring after each addition.
You will notice the texture of the mixture changing in the most satisfying manner.
Add the flour, ideally through a sieve, and fold it in.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake for 25-30 minutes. This cake is better when it is just barely cooked, with a hint of a wobble at the centre. This will give you a perfect fondant texture.
Allow the cake to cool completely in the tin. Don’t be alarmed when it sinks dramatically.
Now for the tricky part: if you can bear to, wrap the cake in tin foil and wait until the following day before eating it. The texture will be even better.
This is a cake for the pure of heart. It is simple and delicious and certainly requires no decoration but, if you must, dust it with cocoa and adorn it with fresh rose petals, shavings of chocolate or, as I have done, crystallized flowers. For Easter, I suggest a clutch of mini chocolate eggs and a little fluffy chick.