Review: ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
When Life After Life was published, it was one of those books that seemed like it was absolutely everywhere. I’ve never read anything by Kate Atkinson but I love novels that play around with time and/or have any kind of non-linear narrative so it was high on my wishlist for the beginning of 2013. As with so many books that are first released in hardback, I eagerly awaited the release of the paperback before proceeding to forget completely how badly I’d wanted to read it. When I saw it on offer on my Kindle while I was playing about at Christmas time, I went straight back to being desperate to read it. It may have taken me a year to get to it but I’m so glad I finally read it.
I’ll give you a clue about where this is going: I really, really liked Life After Life. The writing is just fabulous, the characters feel real and there will almost certainly be at least one that you fall in love with, the idea of multiple lives is well-handled and deftly done and it’s a wonderful work of historical fiction to boot. For a book that has quite a tangled plot (or many tangled plots) and that touches on some genuinely fascinating angles on questions of how much of what we become is what we are and how much of what we become is what we’ve been through. Nature v. nurture, if you will.
It’s easy to read and never feels stodgy or over-worked but it also manages to be extremely clever and packed full of things to ponder. Think about it too much and it might actually cripple your decision-making abilities – what if a decision to walk instead of drive is one of those moments that decides whether you will meet the love of your life and live happily ever after or whether you will never meet them and be destined for a life of loneliness? There are a few pivotal moments in Ursula’s life that we see again and again with varying consequences. Sometimes the choices she makes change the lives of others, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes she has a sense that a moment is key and that there is something she can cause or avoid, sometimes she doesn’t. It makes the thread of the book almost impossible to predict (and, at times, follow) but there’s more than enough that’s common to keep you grounded and invested in the story generally. I adored Pamela and Hugh, Ursula’s sister and father, every time and I never understood (or liked) Maurice, Ursula’s brother. Her mother and other siblings are more changeable and there are a whole host of friends and lovers that she knows and loves and never meets depending upon her earlier experiences. Honestly, I sort of thought that the shifting might be gimicky but I couldn’t get enough of it. After each of Ursula’s deaths, going back over her earlier years was like a puzzle. Is it even possible for her to make every decision in just the right way and live perfectly, protecting everybody that she cares about in the process? Especially tricky when you may not even care about the same people the next time around. Almost as tricky as explaining how intelligent and fantastic this book is.
One of my favourite things about Life After Life was one that I didn’t even know to expect. It might have occurred to me if I’d taken five minutes to think about it but the story starts in 1910, meaning that you get a range of takes on both World Wars, World War One from the perspective of Ursula as a child and the Second World War from adult Ursula’s perspective. Going through a range of lives gives readers the chance to see a range of angles of both wars through the eyes of a familiar character. Whether it’s living behind enemy lines in Berlin or working as an Air Raid Warden, each thread felt as real as the one before it
I’m not quite sure what stops this being a five star, rave review but I think perhaps it was that there were times that I felt as though I didn’t have a clue what I was reading about. I know I’ve mentioned it before but Atkinson’s writing is genuinely terrific and it easily carried me through the times when I was scrambling to work out what had changed and why but the fact remains that I wanted a little bit more of a lead-in when we were back to World War II, for example. Ursula contributes to the British war effort in a number of different ways but it was sometimes distracting that I was half-concentrating on reading about the traumas of surviving an air raid in a cellar and half-concentrating on where characters that had been present the first time around had gone. A small point but one that I did find a bit disorientating, particularly when it took a while for it to become clear what was happening and what had changed.
When I first sat down to write this review, I thought that I wanted to talk about how I wasn’t that sure about the ending. The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that it was sort of perfect. It makes a strange kind of sense, even though my initial reaction was that the story just stopped and left me feeling a bit cheated. Now I’ve had enough time to realise that there was really no other way to finish a story that twisted and turned in on itself about fifty times than with something slightly cryptic. From a quick scout around the internet, the ending means something slightly different to each reader and I wish I’d had the chance to read this book for a book club or something because when I finished, I was dying to talk to somebody about it. If you could read it so that I can talk to you about it, that would be great. I promise that you won’t regret it.
Overall: One of those books that has plenty to enjoy and that I am sure would give more on a re-read. The more I think about it, the more I love it. It’s one of the most unique books that I’ve read in a good few years and one that pulls off being unique without being gimmicky. If you’re at all a fan of historical fiction or just fancy something a bit different from your literary fiction this year, read Life After Life. It’s as good as (almost) everybody was saying last year.
Date finished: 19 January 2014
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday in March 2013