Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Life after Life," by Kate Atkinson

“Life after Life” (Little, Brown, 2013), by Kate Atkinson is a BIG book, and the volume I read is even bigger -- 683 pages -- because it is large print (occasionally I borrow a large print book from the library if it is the only copy available at the time). I read many reviews of this book, and although it came highly recommended, I initially resisted it because the premise – that the main character kept dying and coming back to life over and over again – sounded too science fictionish for my tastes. Finally, after reading more and more positive reviews, I decided to give it a try. I absolutely loved it. The premise I mentioned is in fact a focus, and at first is slightly disorienting, but then becomes a sort of rhythm of its own, and a relief when the character Ursula, whom we repeatedly thought lost forever (her death generally announced to readers with a variety of the phrase “and then darkness fell”), repeatedly comes back to life. Sometimes everything proceeds in the next chapter as if nothing bad had happened. Other times it turns out that there is an alternate story that is the true story. Occasionally the death or bad event averted is of one of her family members or friends. Ursula is aware that she has odd cloudy memories and inklings, but she never speaks as if she clearly understands that she has avoided tragedy over and over again. And in fact, although she doesn’t die in an untimely manner, she does experience other tragedies, other losses. The story takes place, mostly in England, from near the beginning of the twentieth century to near the end of that century, but the most important events take place during the first half of the century, and especially during the two World Wars. The main character, Ursula, is a member of a large, upper middle class family living in the countryside outside of London. We learn much about this family and their neighbors, extended family, friends, lovers, co-workers, and more. The story is told in chapters that go back and forth in time (with the dates listed at the beginnings of the chapters), focusing on various characters, but most of all on Ursula herself. World War II is like another main character, as is the city of London, where much of the story takes place. So the book jumps, for example, from 1910 to 1918 to 1910 again to 1926 to 1940 to 1967 and so on, with many other jumps along the way. We learn much about the horrors of the bombings of London during World War II. To me the main fascination is the way the novel looks at history through the lens of one family, including the trying-out of alternative versions of life and history, such as a visit by Ursula to Germany and Hitler’s inner circle, in which she hopes to assassinate Hitler. And the always reliable, for me, further fascination is the one with how families work, how they love and support and sometimes hate and sometimes betray each other in endless permutations. I have to add that an added attraction for me is that this novel is about a time and place that I love to read about, and return to repeatedly: England during the first half of the twentieth century. But even for readers without that particular fixation, I highly recommend this book.


  1. I read this earlier in the summer, and I liked it very much too. Like you, I'm not drawn to that kind of sci-fi/ magical premise. Also, it just just sounded so frustrating and sad-- a baby is born; she dies; she's immediately born again. But I had read good things about it so I started it and was more and more drawn in. It was odd but it was touching and witty, and the sense of that time in those places was evocatively drawn. A few months after I've read it I can't quite remember exactly what happens in the end( andI wouldn't say if I did), but I remember being somewhat frustrated by the ending. Endings are hard, I know, and tying up the ends of this one would be particularly challenging. But I too would strongly recommend this book.

  2. Thanks, Mary! It sounds like we had very similar responses to this book.


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