Life After Life is one of those books that’s hard to review. It’s a challenging read and it’s got glowing critical reviews. I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson, so I expected to like it, and I did. Be warned though, it’s quite a departure from her other books. This is a book that combines historical fiction with alternate reality and a good dose of philosophy. It’s been called science fiction although it definitely blurs a lot of genre lines.
As its title suggests, this is a book about Ursula, a girl born in 1910 England to Sylvie and Hugh Todd. She’s a middle child of five, a serious, introspective child favored by her father but not so much by her mother. They live at Fox Corner, a fairly idyllic life in a bustling, well-to-do household. Her story would be an average one of anyone who lives through this turbulent time period, except that for some reason, when she dies, she gets to start again. Not in a new life but the same one – only she gets to do things a little differently each time and that leads her life down many different directions. She’s an abused wife in one life, and a bomb warden in another. She dies at birth in one life, and lives into her fifties in another.
To give you a sense of Atkinson’s writing, here’s Ursula’s perspective as a baby:
Bare branches, buds, leaves – the world as she knew it came and went before Ursula’s eyes. She observed the turn of the seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mold and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them – sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice rain more often than she would have liked.
What makes this book so thoughtful and entertaining is that 1) we get to see how many paths one person’s life might take, given slightly different actions in each one; and 2) we get to experience the years of 1910 through WWII through a lot of different perspectives. Instead of giving us multiple characters experiencing different parts of the war, Atkinson gives us the same character, just with different knowledge and experience.
The challenge is making sense of what this all means. Is Ursula special or are we all living parallel lives? This book plays on déjà vu and those uneasy feelings you get that you can’t pin a cause to. I certainly get those. You ever get the feeling you shouldn’t get on the road one day, or a gnawing at your stomach but you can’t say why? Or a feeling you know someone when you’ve never met? In Ursula’s world, all of those feelings have meaning in another life. The difference is that Ursula occasionally feels strongly enough about those feelings to act on them, and those actions send her life spiraling in a new direction.
Another question the book raises is, are Ursula’s lives building in a way where she’s improving each time? Or is she saving herself from drowning only to become a lonely alcoholic in another life. Atkinson seems to be suggesting we can exert some control over our lives (but only some). She brings in notions of karma, fate, and consciousness. Philosophy isn’t my strong point, and I have to admit I’m not sure if this is the kitchen sink approach to the subject or if there is one clear meaning Atkinson is trying to convey.
But that’s one of the things that makes this book a worthwhile read. It’s not an easy read though. Ursula’s life stops and starts abruptly, and keeping track of the many different characters and timelines is an effort. Sometimes the book is written chronologically, and sometimes it seems to hop around to different times.
Ursula herself is a fairly stoic character, and at times, like in Nazi Germany, I really wanted to see more emotion from her. She seems to understand what the Nazis are doing yet has no reaction to it. Other times, her quiet strength is admirable and when she’s at her lowest points, it can be devastating.
As usual, I’m trying so hard not to say too much, I’m not sure I’m making sense. This is powerful historical fiction, that plunks you down in the middle of World War I and World War II in a very unique way. Her description of London during the bombings is particularly vivid. It’s always fascinating to see these years through the eyes of women, because women’s lives changed in so many ways during this time. And Kate Atkinson is such a skilled writer, she really takes you there.
I can’t help but compare Atkinson to Kate Morton, having recently read The Secret Keeper. Both are skilled writers, but where Morton writes everything in high melodrama, Atkinson writes with a depth and subtlety that I much prefer. You could make any of Morton’s books into a great movie, and her books are certainly enjoyable. I’d hate to see anyone try to make Life After Life into a movie.
If you like Atkinson, World War II historical fiction, or philosophy, there’s something for you in this book. Don’t pick up this book expecting a Jackson Brodie-like mystery novel, or straight-up historical fiction. This is a book you’ll work at, and think about, and appreciate for its complexity.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.