Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Bond Street Books
Publication Date: 2013
Synopsis from 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.
This has been one of the best book club books so far. Kate Atkinson is a wizard with a pen. If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently? Ursula Todd is blessed with the gift of rebirth. She learns of the Buddhist idea of reincarnation from her therapist at a young age, but she’s not sure if that word applies to her, or even if she’s been reborn. All she knows is that as she grows, an intense sense of impending doom hits her at various points in her life. This feeling assures her that death likely lurks around the next corner, and so she changes her behaviour, often resisting her own instincts.
There is nothing straightforward about this story, but Atkinson’s writing remains clear and pointed. Although we never know where Ursula is going to end up, Atkinson knows from the very beginning. What I loved about this story was that I could almost hear the universe thinking to itself how it could improve upon Ursula’s life. In some instances, it takes a few tries for Ursula’s story to progress. We can never be quite certain when, where, or how Ursula will die. Nor do we know when this cycle will end. It can be frustrating, but as an observer, we can see that although sometimes actions may change, the result may always be the same. It’s nearly impossible to change the inevitable.
I did find the beginning to be slow. It was difficult to get to know Ursula as a character as a child, especially in those strange and whimsical moments where here life would stall at a particular age. But as her life resets in various ways, we get to see all that Ursula is capable of. We see her worst possible outcome, and her strongest and best possible outcome. Her life only settles into place when she achieves the greatest possible manifestation of her best characteristics. Ursula is a character with a life-changing purpose. Only when everything goes the right way in her life is she able to fulfill that purpose. She may not be destined for great romance, or huge academic success, but she does pave the way for heard working women emerging and entering the work force post-WWII.
I liked how this was a story more of civilians during the war rather than a story of the war. There are so many stories about war, but it’s not often that you see how the war so gruesomely affected civilians. Ursula gets up close. She is affected by the war, entirely entrenched in the action. She does her part to help, identifying the dead and salvaging what she can of the living. The war is personal for her in so many of her stories. Her family is affected and she’s deeply involved no matter what life she’s living. She’s a woman who gets up, dusts herself off, and does what she has to do to survive.
The heaviness of the war and death is contrasted with the light-hearted character of Izzie and the safe haven of Fox Corner. Izzie lives her life doing exactly what she pleases. She makes it big off a serious of children’s books based off the life of Ursula’s brother. There’s humour laced throughout the story that provides relief from a story that precariously balances life and death. Atkinson displays her talent as a writer of a complex and intimate story.
Any fans of Kate Atkinson out there? With A God in Ruins just out, how do you find her other stories compare to this new book?