Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is one of those books that messes you up for a little while. Not because it’s gory or mean, unless you consider occupying your head for a few days mean. I don’t.
Gushing praise usually turns me off and that would be a disservice. So read it if you want. (This is me playing it cool, not hugging this book at all. And definitely not waving it around as a plausible explanation for déjà vu! Nope. Not keeping it on my person in case I run into someone who needs to read it just so we can talk about. This last one is mostly true, my copy is too heavy to haul around all the time as I accidentally got the large print edition.)
Because of the title, I assumed this was a story about the afterlife. And because I have a soft spot for those late 80s/early 90s movies that delved into the afterlife, like Defending Your Life, I assumed this was going to be a fun read. It’s not fun, but it is reading quick sand. A more fitting title for readers like me, who read quite a bit into titles, would’ve been Life After Life After Life After Life After Life After Life After Life.
Ursula Todd is born on February 11th, 1910 on a cold, bitter night in a small English town. She is strangled by the cord before leaving her mother’s body.
(Gah. What book begins with the death of a baby? But wait, there’s a whole book here about Ursula Todd.)
Next chapter: Ursula Todd is born on February 11th, 1910, alive. It’s a close call, but luckily the doctor arrives in time to snip the cord and save her life. She lives! Then before you know it darkness descends. Then she’s born and lives through the prior fatal incident only to stumble into another in her next life.
Reading about a child dying again and again in various tragic ways is not fun, but you keep doing it because the novel has claws and that you weren’t expecting. Yes, Ursula dies a lot, but her story isn’t about her deaths, it’s about her lives. Things naturally pick up momentum as she begins to develop an eerie instinct. A momentary sense of dread guides her to do or not do things that once resulted in her death.
The time Ursula is born into is not without consequence. A story can’t take place against a backdrop of WWI, the Spanish Flu and WWII without being blown off course in every way. In addition to the historical aspect and original concept, the writing is mercifully lucid. If it weren’t, the brilliant ideas may have muddled. When her flapper aunt invites a 13-year-old Ursula to try her beautiful clothes on:
Ursula declined, fearing enchantment. They were the kind of clothes that might turn you into someone else.
During an air raid in London, one of Ursula’s superiors quotes some adage that you can never step in the same river twice. Ursula clarifies that you can, but it’s never the same water. That about summarizes this book. It also lends more weight to the popular advice “live in the present”. Appreciate where you are and that you’re alive because who knows how many horrors you inadvertently or instinctively avoided, not to mention those you knowingly survived.
I loved the ideas Atkinson explores and things this book made me think about. The concept is fascinating, the world is in chaos and Ursula relives it again and again, different every time. Imagine belonging to the time you’re born into, to always be born into the same family with the same circumstances and make a completely different life for yourself each time. Each time there’s an urgency to make it count along with the struggle to become who you are and not merely react to things as they happen to you.
I passed this on to a few people and they all had a similar reading pace as me, but they came away with something different. I focused on Ursula while my sister connected dots and tried to piece together how one major difference impacted the other characters. Either way, it took time to get into. The first quarter is so rough and some of the scenes so vivid they bring you down. Keep reading! Earn your way through and let it stir up you mind. Don’t dwell on the awful men who pass through. Some of her lives are difficult, others are immensely satisfying. All are fragments, glimpses of one lifetime layered over the next with hints that there are many more we’ll never know.
This is one I need to read again. And probably again.
Did you read this? What did you think?