THE SUNDAY REVIEW | LIFE AFTER LIFE – KATE ATKINSON

Life After Life

“Is there Life After Life, chance after chance to rewrite one’s destiny? That is the question posed by Atkinson’s tale and brought to life by the miracle of her talent.” —Toronto Star

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.Goodreads

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This book has been on my radar for a very long time, but every time I’ve picked it up, I’ve had to put it back down to finish another book first, and that just seemed to keep happening. When A God In Ruins appeared on the horizon, I figured this was the perfect kick in the butt I needed to finally pull this one off the shelf and finally find out what all the fuss was about. Very glad I did.

Now, if you’ve been around my blog for a while, you’ll know that I don’t normally do a whole log of historical fiction. I don’t normally do science fiction (even sci fi lite), either. So this book, in terms of its premise, was a complete departure for me. But. There are a few things that saved it and made it very much my kind of thing.

First of all, the historical period that forms the background to this memorable set of stories (that particular choice of words will be explained further into this review) is England from just prior to the first world war up until the 1960s. This is one of the few historical periods (and locations – the location is important) I have a genuine interest in.

Going into the book I was also very nervous about the time travel aspect of the book. The main character, Ursula, experiences a strange phenomenon whereby if she dies she goes back in time and gets a do-over. I’m usually pretty suspicious of books with any kind of time travel, because there’s nearly always some glaring inconsistency created by the time travel that distracts me from the plot early on and by the end has me hating the whole experience. I just can’t suspend disbelief to the level of ignoring plot holes so large you could drive a Mack truck through them. Fortunately, the time travel aspect in this book was dealt with perfectly. Atkinson uses it as a way to rewind the story and tell a similar but different one, so at any point in the book you’re only reading one linear plot.

What I enjoyed most was that because of the do-overs built into the story, if you don’t really like how her life is going, all you have to do is wait. In a few chapters, she’ll be a different person in a different life – maybe even in a different place.Which was good, because I didn’t get along with every incarnation of Ursula. Some I actively disliked, and others I just felt so terrible for that it was nearly impossible to keep reading. The story, in addition to rewinding and being written over, also jumps between time periods and characters, which helps us connect to and understand other members of Ursula’s family and community.

The only problem I had with this book was that by the end it was getting a little bit difficult to keep track of the details that still applied to the current version from the past two or three. I wasn’t too confused to be able to follow and enjoy the book, but I did feel like the size of Ursula’s family and the addition of friends and community members meant that keeping track of what was the same and what had changed whenever her story rewound was difficult. That said, it’s very likely this was more a result of my advanced age and failing faculties than of the book itself, and you probably won’t have any trouble with it at all.

On a personal note, this book fascinated me because of my not-too-distant British roots. I feel a connection to England during the wars – particularly since some of my extended family lived through them. I’ve heard stories of how my paternal grandmother’s love of reading was born during the blitz when she passed long hours in bunkers by reading books. Though reading about the horrors of the war isn’t exactly fun, it does fill me with awe and respect for those who “kept calm and carried on.”

I think that this book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys richly character-driven plots, historical fiction, and likes the idea of jumping between stories, time periods and perspectives. It’s masterfully conceived and executed, and even the unlikable characters become interesting as you learn more about their inner workings in various permutations. It takes a little while to get into, but is well worth the effort.

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Book Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Series: Yes
Edition: Paperback
Published By: Anchor Canada
Released: January 1, 2013
Genre: Fiction, Paranormal, Historical Fiction
Pages: 480

Date Read: April 30-May 12, 2015
Rating: 7/10

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6 thoughts on “THE SUNDAY REVIEW | LIFE AFTER LIFE – KATE ATKINSON

  1. M.

    Oh god I had such a hard time with that storyline. It was the weakest for me; I ended up just trying to get through it. I really enjoyed (not exactly the right word, but you know what I mean) the storylines where she was working in London helping with bombed neighbourhoods. It's a time and place I'm interested in anyway, and she seemed more autonomous and in charge of her life in them as well. It was an interesting experiment in multiple parallel storylines, though!

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  2. M.

    It's interesting, because while this one was a bit slow to get going, I really got into it around the time Ursula was in the blitz. A God In Ruins, on the other hand, I'm finding incredibly slow going. I've been reading it for weeks and am starting to feel like I'm going to be reading it for the rest of my life. It's still well-written, but I already know what happens to certain aspects of the plot because of Life After Life, so that makes the plot a little less exciting for me. It all depends how much you like really detailed family sagas.

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  3. M.

    I'm reading the sequel now and finding it slow going. Without the plot device of Ursula's multiple lives, it's really just a detailed set of side-stories. It's a lot, and it's slow. It's not bad, just not really my cup of tea! Life After Life is definitely worth checking out though!

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  4. Andi

    I struggggggled with this one. I think from a writer's perspective what Atkinson has done is really impressive, but I still took issue with some of the things. I won't rehash the things, but I'd still try out A God in Ruins.

    Reply

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