Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Published by Anchor Canada on January 7, 2014
Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction
Add to Goodreads
Amazon • Book Depository • Chapters Indigo • Kobo
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
This. Book. Is. Sublime. I don’t know if I can do it justice – in fact I know I can’t – but I will try, because this book is a must read. For everyone. Now. Seriously. Go read it!!!
Life After Life is a book I’ve had vaguely in the recesses of my mind for a while now. I picked it up as a treat to myself after I finished my undergraduate exams. Going in, all I really knew was that it is about reincarnation, and not much more than that. Needless to say, expectations were pretty much nonexistent.
I love the cover for this; I think it’s gorgeous. The texture is really glossy and cool, too. The fox and rabbit are symbolic, and after reading the book, they felt even more important. Ursula’s childhood home is named Fox Corner and they see a lot of foxes. The rabbits are also frequent visitors at Fox Corner. Throughout the course of several childhood reincarnations, they become symbolic of Ursula’s overall journey through life.
Life After Life is set (mostly) during WWII and the main character, Ursula, gets reincarnated many times throughout the course of her existence, but always as the same person with the same family. The synopsis doesn’t give a lot away about the logistics of reincarnation, but I think it’s done in a pretty unique way I think. (I can’t tell you more than that – part of the joy of Life After Life is in discovering and puzzling out the plot!) It’s written as fragments of the lives Ursula has lead – basically kind of like different possibilities of the same life. For example, she dies at one point, but then is reincarnated and the story picks up at her last death. It’s a challenging concept because the author presents reincarnation in a very complex way. It took me about 40 pages to understand the pattern. It becomes even more interesting when Ursula grows up a little bit – old enough to have clear memories. Sometimes she remembers things clearly but most often she has hazy half-recollections. This book is an exploration of humanity at its core; it’s not really about “getting it right” (although each time she avoids a poor decision she had made in the past), it’s more about an individual’s possible paths, about family, about history, about war.
The book is set up in life cycles – she dies multiple times but is essentially living out the same story with each life. Then the narrative will move on, beginning a new cycle of deaths and rebirths. Some lives go nowhere, but that’s realistic: it’s a sad fact of life that not everyone’s life is long.
And Ursula. Oh, Ursula. She is seriously the best narrator ever. Meeting Ursula so many times made me feel like I know her intimately; when one of her lives turned out to be horrible and depressing, my heart ached for her. I read some reviews that said it was boring spending so much time in Ursula’s head experiencing such similar events, but I found it uniquely rewarding. Atkinson also repeats phrases and images throughout Ursula’s lives, which gives each life a sense of poignancy and bittersweetness. In one instance, she repeats the image of “a black cat, a rhinestone for an eye”, and each time I was reminded of the horribly sad circumstances in which the image first appeared.
At the heart of it all, though, this book is not sentimental or frenzied. There is such a sense of Englishness about the book. This sums up what I mean perfectly: “‘No point in thinking,’ she said briskly, ‘you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.'” It is uplifting, but also steel-faced in the midst of a horrible wartime. Even the small details – tea in the city, the summer countryside, etc. are perfectly done:
“She found Frieda slipping in and out of delirium and lay down beside her on the mattress on the floor. Stroking her damp hair, she talked in a low voice to her about another world. She told her about the bluebells in spring in the wood near Fox Corner, about the flowers that grew in the meadow beyond the copse – flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion and ox-eye daisies. She told her about the smell of new-mown grass from an English summer lawn, the scent of Sylvie’s roses, the sour-sweet taste of the apples in the orchard. She talked of the oak trees in the lane, and the yews in the graveyard and the beech in the garden at Fox Corner. She talked about the foxes, the rabbits, the pheasants, the hares, the cows and the big plough horses. About the sun beaming his friendly rays on fields of corn and fields of green. The bright song of the blackbird, the lyrical lark, the soft coo of the wood pigeons, the hoot of the owl in the dark.”
Atkinson’s writing style is really unique too – and it kind of has to be to fit the unique concept. Each chapter’s title is a date, and most chapters are only a few pages long (although others are lengthy). Atkinson uses a lot of sentence fragments, which I find can work beautifully, especially with a concept that is so philosophical.
As I’m sure you can tell, there are so many elements that were so important for Atkinson to get right. What is so impressive to realize, after having finished reading, is how much work she put into Life After Life. So much thought. So many plot lines to keep straight. So many tiny details to make sure are perfect. Every aspect of this book was carefully considered and carefully written. Even the smallest supporting roles – which are so often dismissed easily – have been given such life and spark that they feel as important and real as Ursula herself.
Life After Life is the epitome of good taste, good writing, good thinking. I don’t care what your favourite genre is or what you normally read, this is a must-read for any reader. It is one of the most beautiful and accurate expressions of human life I have ever read. Felicitations, Ms. Atkinson.
“Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.”
“An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.”
“Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.”
“‘I don’t suppose the dead care about anything much,’ Teddy said. ‘I think when you’re dead you’re dead. I don’t believe there’s anything beyond, do you?’
‘I might have done before the war,’ Ursula said, ‘before I saw a lot of dead bodies. But they just look like so much rubbish, thrown away.’ (She thought of Hugh saying, ‘Just put me out with the dustbin.’) ‘It doesn’t seem as though their souls have flown.'”
“‘My heart is split in two. I loved him so much. Love him so much. I don’t know why I use the past tense. It’s not as if love dies with the beloved.'”
“She allowed the hum and buzz of the park to lullaby her. Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being. Dr Kellet would have approved this thought. And everything was ephemeral, yet everything was eternal, she thought sleepily.”
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“She thought of Dr Kellet and Pindar. Become such as you are, having learned what that is. She knew what that was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness. She opened her arms to the black bat and they flew to each other, embracing the air like long-lost souls. This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes it perfect.”
Join the Convo!
Have you read Life After Life? What did you think? Were you a fan of her experimental style and unique premise, or did you find it fanciful? If you’ve read Life After Life, do you have any recommendations for similar work I can try?