Life After Life
By: Kate Atkinson
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
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.
Oh my goodness, you guys, I finally got around to reading this book! As some of you may know–either from various discussion posts or from seasonal TTT TBR lists–I had been meaning to read this. I picked up the paperback some two years ago, having been wanting to read this book since I first heard of it. The premise sounded really cool, like the movie Sliding Doors or, a book I read more recently, Cynthia Swanson’s The Bookseller (sort of, anyway; review). After sitting on my TBR pile for as long as it has, I finally picked it up to read 🙂
Hmm, after finishing the book, I found myself wondering how to go about jotting my thoughts down here. It was certainly an interesting book with a fascinating concept of one woman who is born again and again, has different experiences, her life playing out in a transformative time of the early twentieth century. The things that Ursula went through was quite a canopy, many of which touches on a lot of serious & important issues–rape, abortion, alcoholism, marriage, domestic abuse, motherhood, survival, career, expat in Germany during the Second World War, civil service in the UK during said war, etc. Family members live and die, sometimes sooner than expected, sometimes the same way, as well as lovers and friends. Depending on an action or decision made, things shift, new possibilities emerge. I feel the story doesn’t realy dwell so much on these different possibilities as much as Ursula’s experiences through them, but it’s nonetheless interesting to read. Repetitive, certainly, especially for the first 100 pages that left me wondering if Ursula was ever going to survive childhood or not.
While I found the novel interesting, I can’t say I was especially enamoured by it. I’m not sure why, which a premise like this I thought I would have absolutely loved it. I think it came down to two things: the characters and just the overall structure of the story itself. With the characters, they were interesting enough but I wasn’t particularly moved by them or whatnot. Ursula as a hard character to really know, but I think that’s because she’s more or less in flux over the course of the entire novel, with being born, living, and dying over and over again. By the end of the novel certain characteristics of hers is established as part of who she is regardless of what life she leads, but I don’t think the writing particularly left me empathic about her. I felt bad for her at times, certainly, but I found I liked her the most when she was interacting with her family, especially Teddy, Pamela, and her father Hugh, and her aunt Izzie. In fact, I think out of all of the characters in this novel I liked Teddy the most, which I suppose works out well as A God in Ruins features him 😛
I also have to note, Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, irritated me so much, she was my least favourite character in this book. On an objective note, I can see why she is the way she is: she’s clearly a smart and well-read woman who, if she lived today, would have been a very successful person in whatever path she chose to pursue, but the time she lived in and the options she had–not to mention her own upbringing and class–left her rather priggish, snooty, and bitter. Hugh wasn’t the perfect husband, of course, but some of the vitrol his way was uncalled for. Plus, I’m not cool with parents playing favourites, so that did not favours in my mind as I was reading. Maurice, her oldest brother, I should note comes in close second. Some things just never change regardless of how many times Ursula goes through her life.
But moving along, I did feel like the book was a bit hard to get through at times. I sort of accepted somewhere in the first third of the novel that this was the kind of novel that wasn’t going to have some overarching story per se–yes, Ursula does become aware over time that there’s something weird going on, that she’s remembering little bits here and there from previous lives and experiences–so I wasn’t expecting a culmination of something towards the end. But nonetheless it did feel like the story meandered at times, especially when World War Two hit, which was really weird because you think the pacing would pick up and it would be much more interesting, but I actually found it rather boring. Thus I found the last third of the novel a bit difficult to get through until the closing chapters, but what really struck me about that last third was just the love she had for her family. Lovers come and go, marriage and motherhood may be experienced, work kept her busy, but at the core of her experiences, her life, was her family, especially Teddy. It always came back to them.
Overall, Life After Life was an interesting experience as Ursula went through her life again and again and experienced what she went through. Sometimes it was bad and you just want to protect her, other times things turned out reasonably well. If one thing stuck in my mind reading this book, it’s how life really is this mysterious thing; you can’t have it all, really. Things can be going well in one aspect of your life but then is either spectacularly horrible or nonexistent in other departments. There were some wonderful lines here and there in this novel but it didn’t quite move me as I thought it would have; I guess I came into this book with high expectations 😛 Nonetheless I recommend checking it out if you’re looking for a rather different read 🙂