Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
No. of Pages: 544
Genre: Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction
Origins: Little, Brown and Company
Bottom Line: Haunting and riveting tale about the possibility of multiple lives with a twist.
“What if you could live again and again, until you got it right? On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war. Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny?”
Thoughts: Ursula Todd has the unique ability to relive her life. Just as she takes her last breath in one life, she takes her first breath in her next iteration. She is still the same person, and she is always born at the same time and into the same circumstances. Yet, she has absolutely no idea that this is happening to her. Such is the main premise behind Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life. What follows is a beautifully written, enchanting story about how just one simple decision can have a lasting and surprisingly large impact in one’s life.
While the plot of Life After Life appears intricate, the story builds slowly, allowing readers to adjust to the unusual plot, establishing the unique character that is Ursula Todd, and capturing a reader’s interest and emotions. Each life adds something new to a reader’s understanding of the main character, and it does not take long for a reader to start mentally cheering Ursula and hoping that her decisions lead to a long and happy life. Interestingly, the similarities between Ursula’s fate and those of a video game character are obvious; each is given unlimited chances to change one’s actions with more positive results, while each character’s actions result in new experiences and challenges that require even further decision-making. Yet, unlike a video game character, Ursula is so realistically portrayed that it is easy for one to forget that she is fictional. Ms. Atkinson’s ability to capture the essence of life and its many forks in the road, however obvious, makes for an extremely compelling story.
One of the truly fascinating elements of Life After Life is that there is so much open to interpretation. While the story is told in a linear fashion, Ms. Atkinson leaves it up to a reader to determine the true linearity of time. Ursula’s lives could be occurring simultaneously or they could be occurring one after the other, with history changing as her decisions change. The interpretation depends as much on a reader’s beliefs as on one’s knowledge of and belief in alternative theories about time, even as there is nothing to indicate Ms. Atkinson’s point of view on the matter. Similarly, while the novel only shows Ursula’s many lives, there is nothing to indicate that this is a solo situation affecting just her. Others could also be experiencing a similar phenomenon, but since the story is told from Ursula’s point of view, one would never know, just as Ursula does not know. In these instances, what is not said is just as intriguing – if not more so – as what is deliberated stated by the author.
Life After Life is an absolutely haunting tale about life’s little decisions and the huge impact they can have in one’s life. Ursula and her undetermined fate seep under the skin of a reader, binding the two together and making the novel truly unforgettable. Meanwhile, Ms. Atkinson’s almost poetic writing style does much to enhance the mysticism and hint of possibility that surrounds the entire plot. The dubious nature of Ursula’s experiences makes the novel ripe for many a heated discussion, making this a perfect book club selection. Because of its evocative nature, Life After Life is the type of novel that will continue to generate interest for many months to come.