Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Book Review: LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Doubleday
Read: February 9 - 17, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

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.

My thoughts: 

On the 11 February 1910, during a fierce snowstorm, Sylvie Todd gives birth to a baby girl. The doctor is delayed due to the snow, and the child dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord.

On the 11 February 1910, the same baby draws a lusty breath, saved by the doctor who arrives in the nick of time, just before the roads are closed due to the snow. Sylvie names her daughter Ursula – “little bear”.

Over the years young Ursula Todd has many misadventures which result in her death, from drowning to suicide to being buried under a bombed building. But for Ursula, death is not the end, but rather a new beginning, as she is born time and time again to start her life from the very moment she is saved by the doctor cutting the umbilical cord. New choices, often miniscule variations from her former life, result in startlingly different outcomes for Ursula. However, Ursula has no memories of her former lives, only vague premonitions or growing feelings of déjà vu, which compel her to take actions she cannot rationally explain – and see her sent into therapy very early in childhood by her concerned parents, who put Ursula’s feelings down to her “vivid imagination”.

Born into a time of war and upheaval, Ursula experiences both World Wars several times over, taking part in unique historic events which could change the future for mankind – if she can stay alive long enough to experience the consequences.

Life After Life is a clever and unique novel. Doesn’t everyone wonder at some stage how different their lives may have turned out if they had made different decisions, taken action, chosen another path? It is not the first time that the concept of the “butterfly effect” has been explored in a novel (such as in “Before I Fall”, for example), where small acts have far reaching effects. But Atkinson introduces a whole new concept to that idea – of having to relive the same life over and over again, each death starting a new beginning, a new chance to get it right.

The style of the novel is as circular as the pattern of Ursula’s existences – each time she dies, we are propelled back to the start, that fateful day in February 1910, when a little baby girl is born. And although Ursula’s actions have some bearing on the fate of her family, their paths stay fairly constant throughout the different storylines, their personalities unchanged. It highlights the interesting concepts of free will and predestination – how much control do we really have over our destiny? Despite the different timeframes and circular storyline, I didn’t find the book confusing, but caught myself eagerly awaiting another new chance at life when Ursula’s circumstances where especially grim. Since she has been written into some of history’s memorable moments, the novel was also like a trip back in time, of watching historic events unfold in front of my eyes. Atkinson’s atmospheric descriptions of London during the Blitz brought the era to life for me, adding another point of interest to the story.

As mentioned, some of Ursula’s lives are glum, her circumstances desperate. She experiences tragedy, loss and grief many times over, trying to find the right path which each new life she is granted. All characters are compelling and realistically drawn, from Ursula herself to her somewhat dysfunctional family and her companions in her different lives. By presenting a heroine as flawed as the average person, with an average life and hurdles to overcome which many can relate to, Atkinson draws in her readers and holds them captive until the last page is turned.

I would perhaps have preferred a more definitive conclusion – not answers, as such, but a “wow”-factor, a memorable ending which would niggle me into pondering it for some time to come. November 1930, for example – I thought that particular chapter offered the prefect finale (readers will know what I mean, I will not give any spoilers here). But with Ursula’s life being fluid, without a beginning and an end, just a constant circle of life, the novel too offers no neat answers, just possibilities. Fitting, but not entirely satisfying for my inquisitive mind (as I was left asking: Why? How? What?).

Life After Life would make a perfect book club novel with many points for discussion and debate. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a fresh new concept about life in general, and an atmospheric, compelling read.

Disclaimer: I received a free ARC of this novel from the publisher, courtesy of The Reading Room - the thoughts contained in this review are strictly my own.

I read this novel as part of my 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - "published in 2013".

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