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Home > Public Resources > Trauma Blog > 2015 - December > Trauma and World Literature: Life After Life

Trauma and World Literature: Life After Life

December 18, 2015

If you are a traumatologist it is likely that you believe that not only the course of a life but even a personality may seem to change dramatically based on events. You may also believe that occurrence of these events, while made more or less probable by our own decisions, also has a large component of something that seems like pure chance.
 
In the novel Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, the hero, Ursula Todd, is followed through many incarnations, which have been determined both by even her small decisions and by chance. When she dies (as she does multiple times) in the course of events, Ursula Todd returns to her life at an earlier point.  Then a single moment changes her trajectory. The majority of Ursula’s adulthoods takes place in Britain during the repeated bombings of London during World War II. As an air raid marshal, she encounters many traumatic events (but this is not to say that other types of life trauma are neglected in the telling of her story).
 
The passage chosen here is a brief one. It portrays how a formerly stoic supervisory air marshal (perhaps we would say “numb” if she were to present as a candidate for psychotherapy), named Miss Woolf has finally taken all she can take after witnessing the death of a boy who had been assisting her. Ursula, one of her team members, becomes reciprocally more stoic after Miss Woolf finds herself overwhelmed. It is just one of many moments woven together in the flow of the novel which provides a brilliant and compelling demonstration of the role which trauma may play in the development of each individual.
 
Miss. Woolf speaks to the boy:
 
‘Your mother will be awfully glad to see you come home tonight.’ Miss. Woolf said, joining the charade. She stifled a sob with her hand. Tony made no sign of having heard them and they watched as he slowly turned a deathly pale, the color of thin milk.
He had gone.

‘Oh, God,’ Miss Woolf cried. ‘I can’t bear it.’

‘But bear it we must.’ Ursula said, wiping away the snot and the tears and filth from her cheeks with the back of her hand and thinking how once this exchange would have been the other way round. (p 438)
 
Atkinson, Kate (2013) Life After Life. New York: Little Brown