No 699 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life after life

 

I often joke that I am only married to my husband because of the seat I picked on a train one day. By chance I sat opposite an old school friend; we were both relocating to Dublin and decided to look for a flat together. My husband was one of her friends who came to visit. Would I have met him if I hadn’t got into that carriage? Who can know?

But what if you could know? What if you had the gift (or the curse) of dying and being reborn over and over again so that you can change your future, so that you can get things right for yourself, your family and maybe even the world?

That’s the premise of Life After Life, a brave and bold novel that is part historical epic and part family saga and possibly even part science fiction, but always so much more than the sum of these parts.

The novel begins with a prologue that can’t help but grab the attention, as we meet Ursula Todd, in a small German cafe, assassinating Hitler with her father’s Great War revolver. We are then taken back to 1910 where a child is born on a snowy night, but dies after just a few moments in the world due her to umbilical cord wrapping tight around her neck.

Her helpless little heart was beating wildly, a bird trapped in her chest. A thousand bees buzzed in the curled pearl of her ear. No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky. Darkness fell

The next chapter begins again, but this time the child survives. And so, with the premise set, we follow the child Ursula and her family as she grows up, living out her life time and time again. Ursula keeps dying, and dying again. She dies in childbirth, drowns, falls out of a window, and succumbs to influenza. She is murdered. She commits suicide. She dies in the bombing of London in World War II and in Berlin in 1945. The narrative continually starts again, but each time it takes a slightly different course, sometimes changing radically, sometimes only slightly altered, but always utterly unpredictable. The prologue, with the death of Hitler, might be the main signpost for where we are going, but the pleasure is in the journey.

Indeed, a great deal of 20th-century history transpires in the lives between Ursula’s sudden and often violent exits from life. Her existences, serial or parallel, take her through two brutal world wars and on into the 1960’s. But with each turn in her story is revised and therefore so is the outcome.

Atkinson is good at showing how an entire life can be changed irrevocably in an instant and how the seemingly smallest of decisions and timings can have devastating effects. In one life, there is a stolen kiss. In another life, that kiss becomes a rape. In one life, two girls collect leaves in a quiet lane, yet in another one of those children is killed. We are reminded time and again of how fleeting and random life can be. Atkinson seems at a glance to be suggesting that things will get better with repetition, that ‘practice makes perfect’ but never lets us get complacent. Ursula carries within herself, a sense of déjà-vu, dimly remembered fragments of her other lives that drive her actions.

She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if it were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling in to the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. Time was out of joint, that was for certain.

She feels there are things she should do, or not do, but is not always sure why. And while a certain chain of events will save Ursula from one fate, that chain of events may not save her friend, her brother, her father from another. It is as if she must decide which kind of story she wants.

We, the reader are implicated in this manipulation as well. It is as if Atkinson is asking, ‘what kind of narrative do you want?’ Do we want a happy ending? Do we want Ursula to save herself or those she loves? Or are we happy to be left with uncertainty, both about what might happen and about what already has happened? In Atkinson’s world, we can have it all. This might make the book seem ‘tricksy’ but don’t be fooled, this is no mere exercise in narrative form, although that in itself would make it impressive.

 

Photo: Andrew Crowley
Photo: Andrew Crowley

Despite being aware of the artifice behind the novel, the fiction behind the story, Atkinson’s tellings and re-tellings build our affection for Ursula and her family. It can be strange to fully invest in one scenario, only to be bereft (or relieved) to have it end and begin again, but each life builds on the past one to create a story that shines as layer after layer is glazed on. The life of the Todd’s at Fox Corner is beautifully rendered, with a surprising amount of humour. The narrative structure allows these familial relationships to grow, facets of characters to be revealed and in particular, it is Ursula’s relationship with her father Hugh that benefits the most from the skill of the storytelling. More love and affection shine through with every retelling and towards the end I felt that Ursula’s assassination of Hitler was as much a personal act – a chance for her to save her beloved brother Teddy – as it was to stop the war that she had seen from every angle.

The war is central to this novel, particularly the London Blitz and it is brought vividly to life by telling the core of the story, the bombing of a house in Argyll Street in 1940, from Ursula’s point of view as both victim and saviour. While I did think this section dragged a little and could have been 50 pages shorter, Atkinson created some images that will linger in my mind for a long time.

…a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by those small reminders of domestic life – the kettle still on the stove, the table laid for a supper that would be never be eaten – than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized that there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms

Yet, it is in the middle of the extraordinary nature of Ursula’s story that the ordinary shines through, the love for a brother; the kindness of an aunt; the protection of family. Ursula becomes almost an every woman, living all of female experience possible at that time – she is a mother, a sister, a ‘spinster’, a woman of independent means and a battered wife. She is raped, has an abortion and travels the world. Atkinson’s one constant in Life After Life is family and the notion that how where you are from will continue to shape you no matter what life brings.

Atkinson is clever enough not to provide any explanations or endings and in some ways she raises even more questions that she answers. Is there a hint that Ursula’s mother Sylvie is having the same experience as her daughter? We can’t be sure, just as we can’t be sure if Ursula kills Hitler and stops the war from happening. Whether she does or not may not even be the point, because the book ends right back at the beginning, it is the serpent with its tail in its mouth, continuing on.
 

Life After Life is an ambitious and absorbing novel and I’m looking forward to reading the other three Kate Atkinson books that I have in the 746. I’m delighted that you voted it as the winner of my inaugural Reading Roulette and if you’ve read any other books by Kate Atkinson, feel free to recommend which one I should go to next!
 
 

Read On: iBooks

Number Read: 48

Number Remaining: 698

Reading Roulette The 746

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

50 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I loved this book, and I’m glad you reviewed it. I’ve read most of her detective novels featuring _____ Brody and really enjoyed those as well. It seems to me, though, that “Life after Life” is a major leap forward in terms of literary achievement for Atkinson.

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  2. I’ve seen the title “Life After Life” in passing so many times, but was never really interested, but now I definitely am! It sounds like a fascinating novel, and such an interesting set up. Really want to read this now!

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  3. Your review took me back to everything I felt while reading this book. I loved the parts that were her home life, as well as the times she was in London during the Blitz. So many times I felt relief when a particular life was over and she could begin again. I loved how her new lives were not necessarily better, just different, and that she felt a sense of deja-vu, but didn’t know why. Often in these time-travel type books, the protagonist knows and remembers, so I found it a unique twist for her not to remember. It almost makes us wonder if that’s the way it actually goes, but we just aren’t aware of it. Nice Review!

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    • Yes, I liked that she didn’t seem to know, until near the end when I felt she became more focused. I didn’t think of it really as reincarnation or time travel, more like the myriad options our lives have.

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  4. This is such a wonderful review of a really tricky book. Seems like people either loved it or hated it. I loved it and afterwards searched out her other work…and hated it. I like Human Croquet alright but her crime fiction works (and I LOVE crime fiction) I could barely get through. So disappointing. It makes me marvel even more at how exquisite Life After Life is.

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    • I don’t have any of her crime fiction in the 746 (and I love crime fiction too!) but I have a couple of other books. I’m glad this was my first Atkinson, it was clever and engaging so I’ll try some more for sure.

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  5. Great review, Cathy. Like Laura, I’ve had a (kindle) copy of this one for ages, but avoided reading it always choosing something else instead. I think the ‘what-if-you-could-kill-Hitler?’ element has been deterring me from picking it up, so I’m glad to hear that you think there’s much more to Ursula’s story. I’ve always been interested in the idea of how our lives can turn on individual moments, how seemingly unimportant decisions can end up altering our future direction, so this aspect appeals. I’m sure I’ll end up reading Life After Life next year as there’s a strong chance someone will pick it for our book group!

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  6. What a brilliant review – I’d actually decided I was going to give this one a miss as it sounded too “science fictiony” for my tastes. Having read your review I’ve revised my opinion and if I had a copy here I’d pick it up straight away. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and stopping me from missing out on what sounds like an exceptionally clever novel.

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  7. I have to say I felt slightly responsible, having voted, and anxious that you wouldn’t feel cheated at our choice. Your review made me appreciate my reading of the book more – the juxtapositions and the way the ordinary is celebrated – I may have been harsh with my judgement first time round because the book was so unusual.

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  8. Great review! I’m with Laura in that Atkinson has been sitting on my shelf for ages, but I keep not picking it up even after hearing so many glorious reviews. My partner loves her though, this one as well as Case Histories being her favourites. -Tania

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  9. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Alas, I wasn’t able to read along with you as I had a couple of other books to finish for reviews…very frustrated with my slow progress these days. It looks like you are doing great whittling down your pile!

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  10. This is one of my favourite books by Atkinson, well, that is not true, because everything Atkinson writes is my favourite. I am slowly building up my career as a professor by writing articles about her works, because they are good, they are deep, they entertain you, but, above all, they are extremely complex and pretty much fit every post-modern theory on literature, art, feminism and history that you can think of. Actually, I just finished writing an article on her sophomore novel “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” (1995). If you enjoyed “Life After Life”, go and pick “Behind the Scenes”, because it is equally good. I’m 99% sure you will love it as well, and I’m so glad you wrote such a passionate review about “Life After Life”! One can never get tired of fangirling about Atkinson 🙂

    As a crime fiction fan, I can’t recommend you her Jackson Brodie series enough: there is a crime to be solved, but there are moral, psychological, physical and national implications too!

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  11. I really enjoyed this book, but then I’ve liked her work since ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. I hadn’t got around to reading ‘Life after Life’ when I went to listen to her give a reading and an interview. I couldn’t wait to read it afterwards and wasn’t disappointed.

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  12. I know that you don’t need more reading on your TBR list, but I have read a couple of other terrific books that deal with this life after life theme. O’Henry wrote a story about a man on a road that split in three directions. He had three endinds, on per road, that all featured the man dying by the same gun. There’s a wonderful movie called The Double Life of Veronique that I highly, highly recommend. And lastly, a very funny, though very dark book called Dot in the Universe about a woman who keeps getting reincarnated into the same set of less than wonderful souls.

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  13. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book, as I don’t often read such character driven novels, and I was also surprised that the repetition didn’t frustrate me as much as it appeared to frustrate others. I tend to prefer finished pieces, and towards the end it appeared that the book was going to have a finite conclusion – it didn’t end how I expected it to, and I found that I both enjoyed that, and disliked it at the same time. Definitely a great book I would read again, and again, if only to pick over it in more detail. And would also agree, that I’m looking forward to more books by this author. I really enjoyed this one. R x

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  14. Just came across your blog from a comment on Naomi’s and am looking forward very much to catching up on some of your archives! I enjoyed this post because I loved the book and you’ve done such a great job of explaining its fabulousness – I feel I could send people here as an endorsement of it.

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