Published by Reagan Arthur Books on April 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
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.”