I just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s novel “Life After Life,” and I thought it was a great book. I read quite often and I was a Lit major in college, but after the years of academic analysis I stopped writing about the stories that I experienced. I write my own stories now, but in thinking about how lonely my blog is with its sparse postings – I have decided to write a bit about what I read. If I were to take this on as a task of critical review I would tire after the first sentence. I am not a critic, just a reader. So here we go.
“Life After Life” follows Ursula Todd through many different versions of the same life. It always starts with her birth, a snowy night on February 11, 1910 (Aquarius! Which I feel is purposely symbolic). Ursula is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The story explores all versions of this evening by focusing on multiple character perspectives and the different outcomes all spurned from choices made by each character involved. From there Ursula’s story takes many different paths. In one version of her life she drowns and in another she is saved from the ocean by an artist who was painting her and her sister. In other versions she falls out a window, succumbs to the Spanish Influenza, is raped by one man and later marries an abusive man who kills her – all because she makes a single decision. And with every new life she makes a different decision somehow haunted by premonitions and intuitive urges that steer her in a different direction.
It’s not really a book that can be spoiled because there is no beginning, middle and end by traditional story standards. The end starts at the beginning. The beginning starts with the end of one of her lives. The narrative is completely absorbing and I am a great admirer of Atkinson’s prose. Readers beware: she is very English. This is not a bad thing, but there is a cultural difference between Americans and the English and that is observed in this story especially. I say especially, and what I mean is the story takes place in 1910 and the very face of England was changing...and there is a lot of tea drinking. During this time in history the aristocracy had begun its de-evolution and then WWI happens. Atkinson uses Ursula’s mother Sylvie as a figure piece of the old aristocracy, she clings to what some may consider snobbish ideals of class and gender. There's also quite a bit of French and German sprinkled in, but the inclusion isn't off putting - if anything, it enriches the authenticity of the European experience.
WWII also plays a big role in the story. Ursula finds herself constantly the victim of the blitz (the continual bombing of London by the Germans for 57 nights). In other lives she works for the government and a rescue service team. In another life she lives out the war in Germany and meets Hitler. In another life she kills him! It’s an incredible journey through this very interesting time in history, and as a reader I appreciate all the historical research that had to of gone into creating this kind of realism.
Atkinson as the writer is never heavy handed in any kind of spiritual or philosophical way in following Ursula through her many lives. There are several philosophies considered in the course of the story as Ursula is taken to a psychologist for her “morbid” thoughts and constant feelings of déjà vu. There is a bit of a Buddhist notion of reincarnation and circularity; however, in later lives as Ursula becomes more and more conscious of the fact that she has lived other lives before she adopts a perspective of time as the ultimate existence of past, present and future happening all at once.
I will admit that the story deeply affected my mood. There are some lives, particularly the one derailed by Ursula being raped, that are very upsetting. And plus – death is a constant character. Death, often referred to as a black bat or some iteration of darkness falling is hovering constantly over the reader's expectations. And the reader is always left wondering how it will happen this time and which time will be her last time. In one life Ursula chooses death and as she dies she describes it as if something has been broken in the wheel of time as she has never chosen death before. The reader is left to gather what that is that has broken in all of her following lives.
If you can read a book without having an ending tied up neatly in a bow then I definitely recommend this book. That wasn't a spoiler, by the way – for this story never ends.