REVIEW: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
My aunt lent me this book; she and I do not usually have the same literary tastes, hers tilting strongly in favor of endless novels of the Tudor court (I think she could name the kings and queens of England, and most of their relatives, in her sleep). Life After Life was something a bit different for her, as it was for me.
In February 1910, in a modest English country home called Fox Corner, a baby is born early. The doctor hasn’t arrived, due to a snowstorm raging outside. The child’s father is away on family business. The child’s mother, Sylvie Todd, has only the family maid, Bridget (who is all of 14, and new to the position), to rely upon. The child, a girl, comes too quickly, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, and dies before she can draw her first breath:
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.
In February 1910, Dr. Fellowes arrives at Fox Corner just in time to save the child later christened Ursula Todd from dying at birth. He’s able to make the trip just before the roads close due to bad weather. It’s a good thing that he’s there, as Ursula is born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. But Ursula is saved and thrives until June 1914, when on a family holiday, she drowns at the beach.
In February 1910, Ursula Todd is born. She grows up to be a vigorous and happy child, despite the fact that she’s almost lost at birth (the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck) and again is rescued from drowning at four while on family holiday. An amateur painter who has set up his easel on the beach notices Ursula in the water and saves her.
Life After Life poses the question, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Ursula does have that chance, though I’m not sure she finds it that wonderful; she experiences a fair amount of suffering, usually before dying an ignominious death.
The book spans the bulk of the 20th century, focusing particularly on Ursula’s growing-up years (marked by the Great War and the subsequent influenza epidemic) and the horrors of the London Blitz during World War II. The latter calamity takes Ursula several tries to live through intact (and honestly she never really seems quite alright, afterward). The blitz is vividly and grimly brought to life, almost too much so for me; it’s heavy stuff.
I want to be clear; Life After Life is not a romance. Ursula has various relationships in her sundry lives, but most of them are not particularly romantic – an abusive marriage, an adulterous affair, another marriage to an ambitious Nazi, some hasty and furtive couplings performed in the shadows of war. Ursula is not particularly romantic minded, at least not after about age 16, an age at which she has vague romantic longings for (and in one lifetime, a bit of a secret romance with) a neighbor boy. (Her mother would not approve; the boy is Jewish.)
Despite the lack of romance, the book that Life After Life vaguely reminded me of was The Time Traveler’s Wife. I almost added a “time travel” tag to this review, though Ursula does not, strictly speaking, time travel. But her repeated “do-overs” do in essence give her some of the chances that a time-traveler might have, even if she’s not always fully aware of them.
That said, there is a sense that as Ursula goes through her incarnations, she’s trying to get things “right,” particularly later on, as she becomes more aware, at least on some level, that she’s lived this all before. The blurbs I’ve read for the book often suggest that “getting it right” might mean stopping Hitler in his rise to power, and the book does play with that idea. But it’s not the driving force of the story: most often “getting it right” just means not dying the way she died in the previous incarnation; in one case it means avoiding a disastrous assault that ruins her life and leads indirectly to her death several years later.
One of the things I wondered about (because a book like this seems suited for being thought over and picked apart) was the fact that in each life, it appears that Ursula gets a little further. She manages to avoid or prevent whatever series of events resulted in her life ending the previous time. Sometimes this means trying to change the actions of others, as when she tries repeatedly to stop Bridget from going to London with her sweetheart for end-of-war celebrations that ultimately introduce the deadly 1918 influenza into the Todd household.
This makes a certain amount of sense (given that we know Ursula is on some level aware of her previous lives), except when you take into account her first death, over which she had no control (you could argue the same for the drowning, though at least then she was a sentient being and may have done something just slightly different in order to capture the attention of her rescuer). So what I wondered was: how in control is Ursula of her own destiny?
I found Ursula’s consciousness of her past lives fascinating. Often she’s just nagged by a strong sense of deja vu; at other times, memories pop up as fully formed thoughts. In one scene, late in the book, Ursula is seeing (for the first time in this incarnation) the psychiatrist she is sent to by her parents, who are concerned about her strange behavior. Without thinking, she asks Dr. Kellet about the absence of a picture of his son Guy, killed in World War I, which she expects to see in his office. He replies, “Who is Guy?” which presents the intriguing possibility that as Ursula’s life changes with each incarnation, so do the lives of others. Whether these changes are incidental or somehow affected by Ursula was unclear to me (I mean, obviously Ursula doesn’t control the universe, nor is she at the center of it). Late in the book a beloved character thought shot down in the war turns up alive, which hadn’t been the case in previous lives (those where she had gotten past the end of WWII). I thought perhaps Ursula had let herself die in order to come to an incarnation where the other character did live, but I couldn’t figure out how (or if) she was supposed to have any control over his life or death, or she was just going to die as many times as it took for something to change.
Life after Life is richly populated with well-drawn secondary characters: Ursula’s mother Sylvie, not terribly maternal and vaguely dissatisfied with life; her father, Hugh, who first appears through Sylvie’s eyes as a bit bumbling and bourgeoisie (Sylvie’s family fortunes fell after her father died unexpectedly), but who ultimately comes across in Ursula’s view as one of the kindest, wisest and gentlest characters in the book. Ursula is very close to her sister Pamela, a stalwart ally against their older brother Maurice, who is the most consistently unlikable character, rude and self-important from boyhood through middle age. Ursula’s feckless Aunt Izzie is a vibrant character – she does swoop in and rescue Ursula a couple of times, but mostly serves as an object lesson on living irresponsibly and landing on your feet.
Life after Life is a serious book, but it’s leavened by a particular, droll British sense of humor throughout. It was fun to see some of the bits and motifs that recurred through each life, such as the less-than-stellar veal a la russe that the Todd’s cook, Mrs. Glover, insists on serving to the family.
I am in the strange position of recommending this book while still kind of warning off traditional romance readers. Not that I’d discourage anyone from reading Life after Life; perhaps it’s just that it has a very slightly downbeat quality for me that I think makes it unromantic in both the smaller and larger senses. Still, it’s engrossing and original, and my grade is an A-.
Great review, Jennie! I think I am going to try this one. If this is the same Kate Atkinson that wrote the Jackson Brodie novels, her writing style really works for me. Her characters aren’t always totally likeable, but they are presented with a kind of dry wit.
By the way, if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend the Jackson Brodie books. I think there are four, starting with “Case Histories”. They are mysteries, but character studies as well. If you liked Atkinson’s voice in the book you reviewed, you will probably like it in these books too (if you haven’t already read them…)
That is one of the many things I enjoy about reading DA- the willingness to break out and say “hey, it isn’t romance but here is why I think you might like it”. Thanks for the great review- well done.
Yes, this is the same Kate Atkinson who wrote the Jackson Brodie mysteries. I recently discovered these books and have been recommending them to everyone since. There’s also a BBC miniseries starring Jason Isaacs. For once I think they got exactly the right actor to embody the hero as described on the page.
I read this for book club a couple of months ago. I didn’t love it because there wasn’t an overarching “right life”, I think. I did enjoy reading it but I strongly prefer definitive endings and the energizer-bunny style just didn’t do it for me. The lack of a real ending took away from my enjoyment. Most of the other ladies in the book club felt the same. But your review makes me wish I had liked it more.
I love Kate Atkinson, and this is one of her better books. I second the BBC TV series recommendation. Jason Isaacs is brilliant as Brodie.
I love the Jackson Brodie series, although at times it is a little depressing for me. Kate Atkinson’s other books don’t work so well for me, so I’ve been hesitant to try this one because it so heavily relies on a concept which appears, without reading the book, to be tediously repetitive–for obvious reason. But I’ll read a sample and see, because I do like the Brodie books.
Thanks for the review!
Also a Jackson Brodie fan. I’ve really been dithering for awhile about whether to get Started Early, Took My Dog (leaning towards no). I hadn’t heard of this particular Atkinson book before, but your review sounds intriguing–especially that Ursula has knowledge of her multiple paths. I’m going to give this one a try.
I also loved the BBC Jackson Brodie series. And Jason Isaacs was perfectly cast, as was Brodie’s sweet daughter.
One of my favorite books of 2013! The characters stayed with me for a long time after I finished reading it.
@JacquiC: I knew she had written other books but I didn’t know that she had a series of mysteries; I will definitely check those out – thanks!
(And I’m even more excited knowing there is a series based on them starring Jason Isaacs!)
@Jae Lee: I definitely know what you mean – I think I have to be in the right mood to deal with the ambiguity. I think the lack of a “right life” was part of the point. If it had ended with one of the grimmer possibilities I probably would have thrown the book across the room. But I felt like ending was actually rather hopeful.
@Kate Hewitt – I do think some of the reviews I read complained of repetitiveness, though I think Atkinson does a good job of not covering the same ground the same way each time. Though the veal a la russe remains a constant, there are other details that change even in Ursula’s childhood, and those were interesting to read about. I must admit that early on there was a certain tension inherent in seeing how Ursula would buy the farm this time.
I adore Kate Atkinson’s books so I had this one on preorder last spring and read it all in one go the day it came out. I’ve actually bought copies to give to people as CHristmas gifts. But you’re right this definitely isn’t a romance novel. If you like this one though the novel she wrote before it — Behind the Scenes at the Museum– is also really good.
I am an unashamed Kate Atkinson worshiper. I was fortunate enough to get a signed copy for this, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it’s lovely pristine pages, so I’m waiting on it coming out in paperback. I’ve read everything else she’s written though, and second all the love for Jackson Brodie, but would also highly recommend Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She gets a lot of flack for her style, but for me her prose is a lovely thing, and her fine sense of irony that underpins almost everything she writes is so often missed. Yes, I’m a genuine fan girl, and not just because she’s a fellow Scot. So glad that you’ve reviewed her here.
I had been looking at this book for a while, thank you! I need something smart right now after reading the book which felt like a very stupid read :-).
Once I realized what was going on, I enjoyed this book immensely. The author offers a strong sense of place and time and I’m a particular fan of novels set in WWI and WWII. Good balance of narrative with dialogue, the pace did not lag despite returning to past scenarios. The Nazi connection did not work for me but otherwise a great read.
@M.K. Tod: I agree that the Nazi subplot could have been skipped entirely. I found it interesting in parts but the Hitler connection was too much of a stretch.
What a well-written, intelligent review. I just finished this book today and was looking around to see what others had said about it. I like your observation about how the changes in the other characters’ lives, like Dr. Kellet’s son, Guy. I knew that other characters’ lives were changing based on other versions of Ursula’s life, but the Dr. Kellet one particularly stuck out to me, too, perhaps because his lost son Guy was one of the main foundations of his character.
Thanks for the insights! A pleasure to read.