Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I dither writing reviews for books that I absolutely adored. It’s ludicrous. I should be shouting from the rooftops “EVERYBODY! READ KATE ATKINSON’S LIFE AFTER LIFE! IT’S A MARVEL!”

Atkinson’s carefully constructed story follows Ursula Todd, as she lives and dies over and over again. Ursula’s story begins in England, in 1910, when she dies at birth, the umbilical cord around her neck –

The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot. Darkness fell.

And darkness falls multiple times – drowning, slipping off a roof, illness, gas inhalation, suicide.

Atkinson employs the ever-compelling idea that one moment in time can change the course of history.

‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’ Ursula said. ‘If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’

It takes a couple of chapters to settle into the rapid chronological shifts, however, the use of small but consistent details – a dog named Lucky, a missing child, an uninvited kiss, secretarial school – provide anchor points for each of Ursula’s lives. Each time an event is revisited, a small shift in circumstances pivots the story in a different direction.

It had been nothing, just something fluttering and tugging at a memory. A silly thing – it always was – a kipper on a pantry shelf, a room with green linoleum, an old-fashioned hoop bowling silently along. Vaporous moments, impossible to hold on to.

The characters are wonderfully dependable, their traits remaining recognisable despite changing circumstances. Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is ever-so-slightly detached, and resolute in her opinions –

‘But what do they see in him?’ Sylvie puzzled. Ursula had taken her to a parade, one of the interminable flag-waving, banner-toting ones in Berlin, because she wanted to ‘find out for myself what all the fuss is about’, (How very British of Sylvie to reduce the Third Reich to a ‘fuss’).

Ursula’s father, Hugh, is a genial and steady presence. In comparison, her Aunt Izzie is erratic, a spendthrift, and resourceful (in her own reckless way) –

As soon as she heard the news, Izzie left Cornwall post-haste for London and then commandeered a car and a fistful of petrol coupons from ‘a man she knew’ in the government… ‘Men she knew’ was generally a euphemism for ex-lovers.

What did I love about this book? The quiet humour –

The wicker furniture had long since rotted and been replaced by the more quotidian deckchair. Hugh had been put out by the arrival of folding wood and canvas.

The scenes focussed on the Blitz. The detail never once read as info-dumping –

‘What’s old Fritz up to, eh?’ he said soothingly to one of the smaller, more frightened children. ‘Trying to stop me getting my beauty sleep?’ The Germans always came singularly for Mr Miller in the person of Fritz and Jerry, Otto, Hermann, Hans, sometimes Adolf himself was four miles up dropping his high explosive.

The charmingly British carry-on-stiff-upper-lip tone (actually, Downton Abbey on acid crossed my mind….). Sylvie says –

‘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.’

And while much of the narrative tension is derived from watching Ursula avoid the decisions that had previously led to death, this book is not about getting it ‘right’. It’s about family and war, underpinned by unpretentious philosophical reflections about time, intuition and destiny.

That this book continued to surprise me, despite the fact that the structure was clear, is testament to the subtlety and complexity of Atkinson’s storytelling. It could have been repetitive but instead is richly layered, and a story that I found utterly engrossing.

5/5 Spectacular.

‘Es schneit’ she said. ‘It’s snowing.’ He glanced out of the window as if he hadn’t noticed the weather. He was eating Palatschinken. They looked good but when the waiter came bustling over she ordered Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte to eat with her hot chocolate. It was delicious.

See Page to Plate for a thorough analysis of all the food references in Life After Life.

28 responses

  1. You make a good point that I didn’t realize till later.. it could have been very repetitive but Atkinson is pretty amazing. I adored it as well. 🙂

    • Looking back there were a few elements repeated in each death – the language (‘darkness fell’) and the weather but it wasn’t repetitive as such. So many of the deaths I didn’t see coming, nor did I anticipate the way the deaths were then avoided – extraordinary.

    • I never thought I’d like it either, assuming it was a ‘time travel’ or ‘supernatural’ story (not my scene) however it’s neither. At most it could be classed as ‘historical fiction’.

    • Ha! I can see myself having strained bookish relationships with anyone who gave this book one star (although reading the one star reviews on Goodreads was interesting- lots of the criticism was about the structure which they thought was either gimmicky or confusing).

      As to prizes… I guess it’s not an easy book to categorise (although I’m thinking of it as an historical relationship story, closely aligned to my favourite genre, contemporary relationship stories).

      • I can see that many readers would see it as tricksy but if you’re a hardcore Atkinson fan you’re prepared for a few literary fireworks.

        My main beef was with the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

  2. I, too, loved this book and settled into the patterns of rebirth and changing circumstances made by a different decision or two. Gals in my book club, however, did not easily go with it and felt confused and disoriented.

    • I would love my book group to read it however I think they’d balk at the 560+ pages! I actually didn’t pay a lot of attention to the dates of each chapter once I got into it – I found enough repeated detail to orientate me and instead let myself be carried along with the beautiful writing.

  3. Yes this book is a masterpiece. I adored being in Ursula’s life. And the narrative choices are so underpinned with strong characters that you never second guess Atkinson. Utterly absorbing.

    • I can’t actually believe I’m so late to Atkinson (although I’m not a reader of crime/ mysteries so will bypass those). Anyway, I’ll be bingeing on her literary novels!

  4. Seems like I should not have waited so long to read A God in Ruins if it has references back to Life After Life. Oh well. I too have a hard time reviewing books I really love. Sometimes it is hard to put my reaction into words or to get across what made it special to me.

  5. It’s a real gem isn’t it? I’ve got A god in Ruins lined up but want to save it for a rainy day/bout of illness/ apocalypse!

  6. Love your enthusiasm! I’ll look out for the audiobook. The only Atkinson I remember is Started Early, Took My Dog, though judging by the cover I’ve also read Human Croquet. I’ve been reading her google entries, interesting that she repeats characters sometimes.

    • I hope you enjoy it Bill – it’s a longish book so should give you quite a few decent listening hours. My library does have an audio version (I listened to a few minutes and narrator was PERFECT) – hopefully you can track it down.

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