Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life tells the stories of Ursula Todd’s lives, from each birth to each of her deaths, in their many variations. Thus, Ursula is stillborn on a cold winter night in Englang in 1910. Or, she is born and just saved from being strangled by the umbilical cord.
The premise of being reborn is not a new one, but Atkinson’s execution is so well-done that each re-living of a moment of Ursula’s lives showed not just a what-if moment, but presented a broader picture of family life and life in Edwardian England and the Blitz. Focusing on a few of these important moments and examining how one difference affects so many lives, the lives of Ursula are never repetitive and despite knowing that Ursula would simply be reborn, I was always invested in each version of the events.
This is due to the wonderful characters around Ursula, especially her mother Sylvie who outshines Ursula as one of the strongest characters and, as always, Atkinson’s writing style. Even if I actually prefer her crime series, the dark humor and sharply-drawn characters are a delight in all her works. Perhaps it’s because she is not afraid of making fun of her characters and I always look forward to the sometimes biting comments and insights that can be found in the narrative and opinion characters have of each other. Surprisingly, I found myself less invested in the main character Ursula. Some longer moments helped round her out more, and shows how especially women’s lives can be heavily impacted and changed by gender-specific violence. But for the most part, what made me turn the page were all the other characters. This is likely due to the sometimes choppy nature of the premise, but Ursula seemed to be a conduit more than anything else to me.
The thing with this sort of premise is that of course the really is no definitive version, no ‘real’ life, despite Ursula becoming more aware of this and attempting to change events and get ‘it’ right. Even though the book is over 600 pages long, it did not feel too long. The latter part explores the idea of changing history by killing Hitler and giving Ursula one life in Germany during the 1930s, thereby connecting it to the novel’s opening. I do appreciate Atkinson not making this the focus of Life after Life, but these parts fell somewhat tacked on to the rest of the story and I finished the novel more dissatisfied than I would have without the last 100-200 pages.
And so I really did enjoy reading this novel, especially the writing and the imagery of summer days in Ursula’s home and the vividness of the horror of the Blitz. But perhaps, I appreciate the premise and set-up just a bit more than the actual story. Still, even if this one does not have me raving, I definitely recommend it. Also, I just found out that a companion novel called A God in Ruins, focusing on her brother Teddy’s story, will be published in May. So now would be a good time to pick up Life after Life, if you haven’t read it yet.
Have you read Life after Life? What did you think?