Updated on May 19, 2015
35. ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson
A baby is born in a snowstorm. The doctor can’t get there because of the weather and the baby dies. But in another lifetime, the baby lives…
This is the story of Ursula, a girl with a very unique ability: when she dies she is reborn, over and over, into the same life. She has no clear memories of her previous lives, but she becomes more alert to the dangers and has the ability to change her future. A future which includes family, murder and the Second World War.
Right from the off this book has a very interesting hook – early deaths happen in rapid succession to set up the premise, so the reader starts seeing doom around every corner (and feeling kind of disappointed when Ursula manages to survive for longer and loner periods of time). But, while you come for the time travel/reincarnation stunt, you stay for the family story. Ursula has a large family: her parents Sylvie and Hugh, her four siblings Maurice, Pamela, Edward and Jimmy, and the various maids and nannies in their home, including Mrs Glover, Alice and Marjorie. The family is very well drawn, especially since we get to see how they respond to each other in different circumstances (for example, the loving mother in one lifetime might not be so caring when her daughter finds herself in trouble in another).
I really enjoyed this book and I think the characters are strong enough to carry the reader through its many, many pages, even after the excitement of the original ‘gimmick’ has worn off. You might start out playing a game of ‘Guess the Death!’ but as you read on Ursula and her family really grow on you, and you just want to read a version of their lives where they all get through the war unscathed.
Atkinson also doesn’t flinch from describing the brutal realities of the Blitz. Bombs fall on London and Ursula is right there in the middle of it, witnessing horrors and trying to cope with them. It’s a portrayal of the stereotyped British ‘stiff upper lip’ at its finest, without being too cliché.
The ending is satisfyingly inconclusive (just the way I like it). Throughout the book we are lead towards the idea that one particular act will release Ursula from her endless cycle. What happens instead made me put the book down and say, “What? Really? That?”. Life After Life is melancholy, complex and very compulsive reading. If long books spook you, don’t let the length of this one put you off: you’ll probably get hooked and finish it sooner than you’d like!
“Ursula felt she had no use for the life she had been saved for.”
If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?