“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
In the midst of a snowy English evening in 1910, Ursula Todd is born. Her umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and without the presence of the doctor who is held up in the blizzard, she dies. In the midst of a snowy English evening in 1910, Ursula Todd is born. The doctor has made it through the blizzard, and she lives. So begins Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – a sweeping, twisting narrative that paints detailed vignettes of important events of the 20th century that relate to Ursula, as she lives and dies over and over again.
The story runs as if Ursula is living a choose-your-own-adventure book – in one life she’s persuaded by her sister to wade out in the ocean and dies. In another, she has a bad feeling about the waves and stays on shore. Most lives end with the same few phrases, and so as you’re reading along and reach a critical juncture, you’re waiting to see if they show up again or if she makes it through the situation alive. I know that this storytelling choice was not popular with all readers but I found it very interesting and thought it added a sense of suspense to the ordinary, everyday events that comprise much of the story. The section where she dies repeatedly of the the flu of 1918 got frustrating, but that was the only instance where the framing device bothered me.
While possibilities of parallel universes or reincarnation are certainly interesting questions as they related to the way the story progresses, I thought Atkinson got a bit cute with her metaphysics and broke the flow of the story a bit too much by adding in some of the psychiatrist sequences later in the book. Ursula’s half-awareness of her previous lives and sense of fate and melancholy were more interesting as they played out subtly – in the sections where she gets particular ideas on how to shape historical events or openly discusses what might cause the multiple lives, it reads more as Atkinson breaking and wanting to show how clever she is or feeling like she needs to toss a bone to less astute readers in her audience. That’s the book at it’s weakest.
The book at its strongest is a fleshed-out world for the author to run wild with a variety of character studies – like impressionist paintings of the same subjects at different times of day. In some lives minor characters become major characters, her distant mother is less cold to her, lovers from one life are merely colleagues in another and her family relationships twist and turn on the balance of a few words, a few choices. Some people are constants in her life, albeit in different contexts, and others’ potential is only fleshed out in one time around.
Life After Life also deals with women’s issues in a straightforward way that is nearly as shocking as it is matter-of-fact. We see how the cultural attitudes towards things like rape or domestic abuse invade the happy security of Ursula’s sense of self and how she responds to them. She runs through dichotomies of marriage and spinsterhood, abortion and motherhood, chastity and sexual liberation in her various lives and experiences the unique trials and pain that accompany every choice. It was definitely a book about the many possible experiences of being a woman and I thought it was valuable to see those experiences written about and important that the takeaway on them seemed to be her ultimately finding a life where she is independent and secure in herself.
Life After Life is certainly not a flawless book, but it is one of the most unique and captivating I’ve read this year, the sort that weaves an emotional spell around you that takes a while to dissipate even after you have turned the last page.