Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Posted July 21, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 23 Comments

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Published by Reagan Arthur Books on April 2013
Pages: 529
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library

Okay, I know Life After Life has been reviewed about 800 bagillion times and you’ve all read it already and there isn’t anything I could possibly add to the conversation… but I read it and loved it, and now I want to talk about it.

If you’ve somehow missed the buzz surrounding this book, I’ll lay out the premise for you. Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910 but dies immediately because the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck and the doctor doesn’t get to the house on time. However, she gets another chance at life; she is reborn into the same family on the same winter night, but this time the doctor arrives early enough to save her. She lives a few years longer before drowning on a family outing to the beach. Again, she starts her life over. This is the pattern the novel takes; each time Ursula is reborn, her life takes a slightly different path. Sometimes she makes decisions that prolong her life, and sometimes it’s differences in other people’s actions that change the course of her life.

It’s a fascinating thought experiment: if you had the chance to do your life over and over again, would you ever get it right? What would you do differently if you knew what the results of your actions would be? How many different paths can a life take? Ursula doesn’t remember her former lives, but feelings of intense foreboding help her avoid certain harmful situations, and she sometimes experiences something similar to deja vu. This book explores how seemingly small moments can alter the course of an entire life; a large chunk of this book takes place during WWII, and in various incarnations Ursula works as a secretary in London, is the friend of Hitler’s mistress at Hitler’s retreat in Berchtesgaden, lives as a single mother in war-torn Berlin, and is a member of a rescue team that saves London residents from bombed buildings during the Blitz.

“I can put more hot water in the pot,” Miss Woolf offered. To cheer her up Ursula told her stories about Jimmy and Teddy when they were boys. She didn’t bother with Maurice. Miss Woolf was very fond of children, her only regret in life was not having had any. “If Richard had lived, perhaps… but one cannot look backward, only forward. What has passed has passed forever. What is it Heraclitus says? One cannot step in the same river twice?”

“More or less. I suppose a more accurate way of putting it would be ‘You can step in the same river but the water will always be new.'”

I was nervous that constantly restarting Urusla’s life would be tiresome and repetitive, but I was pleasantly surprised by Atkinson’s ability to make each beginning feel fresh. Each time we return to Ursula’s birth, we read about different aspects of that snowy night; Atkinson looks at different moments and tells the story from different perspectives, so it doesn’t get boring. She even has a sense of humor about the constant deaths; the author marks each death with the words “darkness fell” or something similar, and after one particular death claims Ursula for the fourth time, Atkinson writes, “Darkness, and so on,” as if winking at the reader and saying, “Yes, I know, bear with me.”

Life After Life grabbed me in a way no other book has done recently. I couldn’t put it down. Whereas I struggled with my previous read, taking 11 days to read 300 pages, I flew through this 500+ page tome in four days. Atkinson’s writing is fantastic, and this novel has an incredible page-turning quality. However, I did get a little bit confused toward the middle, when the narrative jumps around in time; it was kind of difficult to keep the different story lines separate. (I would love to see a flow chart of her lives.) On the whole, though, this book is excellent. It paints a fascinating, bleak picture of London during war time, and  I loved the themes of self actualization and the infinite possibilities of life.

“Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”

  • How wonderful that you closed your review with my favourite quote from the book!

    I think Life After Life is Atkinson’s best work until now even though her previous novels are also great. If you loved it, I can’t recommend you Behind the Scenes at the Museum enough. I also read it after Life After Life and I could see Ursula haunting Atkinson’s first novel even though it dates back to 1995.

    I think you’re becoming a faithful Atkinson fan 😀 Yay!

    • Aghh, it’s a perfect line! I really want to try her other books now; I’ll add Behind the Scenes at the Museum to my list!

      • It is! I love the hope and freedom it contains 🙂

  • You’re right that there have been a zillion reviews of this book, but yours is the first one that has actually made me want to read it! Thanks for a great review. 😀

    • Haha thank you! Your comment just made my day 🙂

  • I really enjoyed this book and hoped it would win the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I thought Kate Atkinson exploited the concept behind the story very effectively.

    • The shortlist for the Women’s Prize was fantastic; have you read the winning book?

  • “Life After Life” was too grim and tedious for me, but I’m impressed that Atkinson managed to make a couple of overdone themes interesting (alternate lives and killing Hitler).

    • I found a lot of it grim, too, but it kind of felt like a puzzle: “Oh, that was terrible; I wonder how she’ll get out of that next time.” What did you find tedious about it?

  • I have seen quite a few reviews, but I don’t mind! I haven’t read it yet and the more reviews I see of a book, the more likely I am to get around to it!

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    I’m so glad you liked this one too! I was like you, I thought it might turn out tedious or too gimmicky. Turns out that I thought it was quite brilliant!

    • I was glad to find out the hype was true!

  • I blew through it too, and didn’t feel like a long one at all! So glad you loved this. 🙂

    • It’s amazing how quickly it flew by!

  • I’ve read a few reviews of this book, but YOURS might make me actually put it on my never-ending TBR list!

    • I feel kind of mad with power now 😛

  • Fantastic review! I have this book loaded on my Kindle, but I haven’t read it yet. Your review certainly makes me want to turn my attention to it now 🙂

    • Yay! I hope you love it!

  • I also had trouble towards the middle keeping the story lines separate. I couldn’t keep them separate and because of that it dragged for me. But even what you just did in the middle of your review, detailing her various incarnations, was a help (secretary, rescue worker…) I wish Atkinson had framed that muddle a bit because the book lost that page turning quality for me and it was really hard to finish.

    • I kept a list of her various deaths, but I wish I had mapped out her various lives. I don’t think it bogged me down much, but it definitely would have been nice to see that section written a bit more clearly.

  • I’ve seen a lot of reviews of this book, and it definitely is on my TBR list. Infact, I had a kindle sample that I downloaded the day before yesterday so I can make up my mind about whether to buy the book or not (I am going to get the kindle book, because after waiting months for the book to arrive here in SA they only selling the huge A4 size one which is SO expensive).

    I do like the idea of doing your life over and over again…! It’s like a different version of reincarnation. Lovely review Leah!

  • Great review! You’ve made me even more excited to read it. My hubby bought me it for Mother’s Day, and I have it set aside to read on my vacation in Sept. 🙂

  • izzyreads

    I’ve just finished reading Life after Life and found it very much a novel of two parts — the first half was great but I found the part set in Germany quite tedious and it never really recovered for me after that. I’m obviously missing something because everyone else seems to Iove it but for me it’s a 3 out of 5.