Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Summary from Goodreads:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Before I start this review, I just want to say that this book had been on my TBR list since 2013. And I finally got around to reading it! And I didn’t buy it! I borrowed it from the library (that I have lived around the corner from for over a year but didn’t join until last month because I was too busy buying books that I don’t need). How’s that for fighting tsundokism? *pats self on shoulder* Seriously though, libraries are magical havens that should be frequented much more frequently by all, especially me. Note to self: when faced with the urge to buy a book, go to the library instead.

Anyway, back to Life After Life. The book blurb suggests that the question the novel explores is: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” While this question is posed by one of the characters, it didn’t really strike me that this is what the novel is about. Rather, it’s more about all of the paths that a person’s life can take depending on a range of factors, including their own decisions, the actions of others, and random events over which no one has control. In their impact on Ursula, these factors create a complex web of alternative realities, so that she lives different lives in parallel worlds.

Ursula’s lives can be seen as an infinite series of forks in the road of time, with each fork representing a moment of crisis and subsequent change. However, Atkinson layers Ursula’s different lives on top of each other, so that she can sense them, through déja-vu experiences, through presentiments of doom, or simply through feeling that something is not quite the way it should be. Ursula states at one point that time is like a palimpsest and this is exactly the impression that Atkinson creates. The ways in which Ursula’s lives differ one from the other are given additional force by the things that stay the same: Ursula’s essential character, the personalities of her parents and siblings, the nature of her relationships with them, the family home. With each layer of a different life, Ursula, her parents and siblings age and develop; yet they remain recognisably themselves, for good or bad.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book! It was fun, original, well-written, and thought-provoking. Parts of it were quite over the top (I mean really, Ursula shoots Hitler in the opening chapter), but I didn’t really mind at all. After reading Robert Seethaler’s lovely, quiet novel A Whole Life (you can find my review here), it was a lot of fun to read something so audacious.

That said, there were moments where I was a little disoriented, as the story jumps around in time quite a lot. Also, I thought there were some sections that dragged a little and I couldn’t help but wish for Ursula to hurry up and die already so I could read about another one of her lives. Does that make me a horrible person? Don’t get me wrong, she is not an unlikeable character – in fact, I really liked her and emphathised with her a lot – but there were moments that felt a little repetitive.

Aside from these small criticisms, I loved this book. Would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a fun-and-entertaining-but-not-trashy read.

Have you read Life After Life? What did you think about it? 

~Anna