Life After Life

Kate Atkinson
Life After Life  Cover

Life After Life


Minor spoilers in review

I really wanted to like this book but in the end have to say I was left a little disappointed and kind of relieved when it was finished. I've cheerleaded Atkinson in the past - I thought 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' was excellent and really enjoyed what I have read of the Jackson Brodie series (I've read 'One Good Turn' and have enjoyed the dramatizations on TV)

The premise of the book is interesting - each time Ursula Todd dies she is born again and relives her life, with each life having different outcomes whilst largely travelling the same paths. I guess the concept is 'What of our life is predetermined and what is choice'. There are also parallels with the 'Butterfly Effect'. It's notable to consider that this isn't a time travel novel or even that there are parallel universes - it isn't explained how Ursula effectively reincarnates as herself. What is interesting is that Ursula sometimes retains information from past lives and sometimes doesn't. Some of the actions she takes to change events lead to unintended consequences. It is a novel of birth, death and rebirth in many respects. We revisit the lives of her family time and time again (the same people but here and there subtle changes affect them).

The early chapters are good and there is a perhaps morbid fascination of preparing for or expecting the death of Ursula to come around. It isn't nice reading about little girls dying. The book straddles two world wars and shows the reader the impact both wars have on Ursula and her family over the generations. I liked the subtle shifts in perspective each new version of history brings - Ursula's father turns from a bit of a stuffed shirt and the proper English gentleman into something more softer - is it the effect of age or the horrors of WWI? I'm not sure. Ursula's flighty Aunt Izzie is a wonderfully conceived woman, reckless with the gay abandon of independence. I loved the 'black sheep' of the family even though she is much, much more and quite strong when things actually matter. Ursula's eldest brother Maurice doesn't really change. He's a little shit of a boy, turns into a swine of a man and an ungrateful, over privileged heartless, self centred individual irrespective of which life Ursula is living.

I don't like to think in terms of chapters but there are a couple in here which made me feel really angry - definitely not a criticism of the book, I was feeling Ursula's pain and pretty much wanted her to die so she can live again. I think Atkinson, in showing the waterfall effect of one cataclysmic event and how it effectively ruins one's life is doing something clever here. We're confident Ursula will live again, but us, the readers will not and that is sad and terrifying at the same time. An event in Ursula's youth sets in train a series of horrible scenarios which leads to her marriage to a brute of a man. The theme here is unfulfilled opportunity. In my 40's now I am thinking about making the most out of mine and my children's lives.

The World War II sections individually are good, each life has it's joys, its pathos, its tragedy. I liked how Ursula sought love, sex, affection - whatever she needed - I know it's a trope that if you don't think there will be a tomorrow then let's live for today but it doesn't feel overused her. The carnage of WWII can't fail to leave an imprint on the reader. The life where Ursula is living in Germany during the fall of Berlin is a particularly emotional one which again left me feeling quite sad at the choices Ursula made - justifiable as they are.

Atkinson is a wonderful writer who has written a story that moves the reader and she is quite masterful at presenting the same information in multiple ways to change the perspective and perception of the reader.

Where the novel fails for me really is despite the premise of the book being interesting, it's not that great really. It really is 'Groundhog Day'. By about two thirds way through the book I realised it wasn't really going anywhere. I began to find the repetition boring and began to care less and less about Ursula. Even when she is 'putting things right' she isn't really for someone else. I think I would have liked a more fantastical finish but the novel just peters out over the last fifty pages or so. When reading a long book I don't want to feel bored in the last third. The WWII sections are okay but don't come close to Connie Willis' 'Blackout/All Clear' - a story that focusses on people going back in time to the Blitz. Reading this made me think how much I enjoyed Willis' books.

Interestingly enough - I read this book for my book group at work and am also reading winners of speculative fiction awards this year. In a coincidence the next book I am reading is 'The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August' by Claire North which has as it's premise a man who relives his life time and time again. Rather uncanny really that I am reading to novels with essentially the same hook back to back. Am I reliving my reading life?