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, and lets out a lusty wail. 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?
Prior to reading Life After Life, I had some misgivings . The story is based on the premise that the main character, Ursula Todd, is born and dies many times throughout the novel. I have difficulty with " experimental " novels and in particular I did not care for the movie Groundhog Day in which a man wakes on Groundhog's day repeatedly. This concern with regard to Life After Life was for nothing, so expertly and smoothly does Kate Atkinson handle the transitions. Each time that Ursula dies - or takes her last breathe, she wakes up as the same person , with realistic , grounded settings and an expanse of well - drawn characters, rounded characters . Each time Ursula is born into the same family, with the same setting, just the circumstances change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The novel depends on the premise that when one comes to a fork in the road of life, one can choose to go left or right, and everything that happens after that choice is made is more or less consequence. Ursula is not is not always reborn as a baby, but often " the darkness falls" even as she is older , only for her to wake at the same age, or slightly older or younger, but she is always Ursula, surrounded by the same cast of friends and family, though as time goes on new characters are of course present, and where Ursula lives changes as she ages. Once you accept that premise , which was very easy, the novel flows effortlessly .
As the story begins in February of 1910, Ursula is born and reborn several times , depending on whether the cord around her neck is cut in time or not. The re-births slow down greatly as the novel goes on. Ursula Todd is the third child , born to Hugh and Sylvie Todd. Father Hugh is a banker and mother Sylvie is his well -bred, intelligent wife.Eldest brother Maurice is a difficult, often cruel and thoughtless character throughout the story. Pamela, the second child, a practical, steadfast person who remains a close friend to Ursula no matter the circumstances. Younger brother Teddy ( Edward) is the good natured family favourite, and youngest child Jimmy arrives after Hugh returns from Flanders Field, WW1. The Todd family lives in country home called Fox Corner , which is within commuting distance of London England. They are well- to- do, with a cook, Mrs Glover and and Irish maid,Bridget.
As Ursula experiences " the darkness falling" and waking up to new set of circumstances, she begins to occasionally have a sense of deja vu. Will Bridget and Teddy die of the Spanish flu, will a child drown in a lake or not, when Ursula turns 16, will she be raped , causing a dreadful episode, or will she throw off her attacker and go onto college? Each episode ends with darkness falling and Ursula reacting differently and thus a new set of circumstances come into play.
The novel moves forward to WW11, with the London Blitz being perhaps most central to the novel , vividly and realistically described. Darkness falls relatively frequently during the Blitz, as Ursula works for the war office, does or does not work for the ARP, is or is not hit directly by a bomb.There are many grim scenes of bombs falling, fires, dismembered bodies, the smell of cordite and death. The horror of the London Blitz become very real. I enjoyed Kate Atkinson's even handed treatment of the soldiers of war. During the London Blitz, as Ursula is outside amongst the bombing , she " found it very odd to think that up above them there were German bombers flown by men who, essentially, were just like (her brother) Teddy. They weren't evil , they were just doing what had been asked of them by their country. It was the war that was evil, not the men. Although she would make an exception for Hitler.'Oh yes, 'Miss Wolff said, 'I should think the man is quite, quite mad.'" page 374
Does Ursula's seemingly infinite number of number of lives allow her to change the worlds destiny or not?
Though the plot may sound intricate and possibly grim, overall it is a warm, wonderful, and not infrequently darkly humorous read, one to be savored and appreciated. I enjoyed each and every word, and was sad to say good- bye to Ursula and the many wonderful characters that populated the novel.
5 wonderful stars
Ursula Todd was born on February 11, 1910 and immediately died because of the umbilical cord that was wrapped around her neck. And then Ursula is born on that same date and grabs life by the horns as she embarks on a life where she dies again and again. It’s a hard concept to explain to anyone who hasn’t read the book but this theme, in Atkinson’s hands, flows smoothly, and provides her with the perfect vehicle to dispatch her uncanny storytelling skills. As I made my way through the oh-so-engaging narrative, I found that the author considerately gave me warning signals as to an upcoming death: snow, for one thing, and the ominous phrase, “Darkness falls.” And then you’re off to another life, another story. Ursula doesn’t understand what is happening to her or why things sometimes seem so familiar but when she’s sixteen and her mother thinks she purposely pushed the beloved housemaid Bridget down the stairs, Ursula’s mother Sylvie sends her to a psychiatrist who may be able to help her sort out these strange feelings she seems to have. He advances two theories: reincarnation and the idea of amor fati,
love of fate. “It means acceptance. Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad, equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced.”
Atkinson surrounds Ursula with fully fleshed, complex characters that drive a most compelling narrative. But the main thrust of the book is WWII and especially the 1940-41 years of the Blitz where Ursula volunteered as a fire warden, dragging bodies out of the rubble. The tension is palpable and the scene is heartbreaking.
”One floor above the man with the yard brush (although there was no floor) a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula found herself more moved by these small reminders of domestic life---a kettle still on the stove, the table laid for a supper that would never be eaten---than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized that there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms. The capriciousness of high explosives never ceased to surprise Ursula.” (Page 429)
In time, she can’t understand why things seem so….familiar.
”She had been here before. She had never been here before. There was always something just out of sight, just around a corner, something she could never chase down---something that was chasing her down. She was both the hunter and the hunted….She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past. Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside became the outside. Time was out of joint that was for certain.” (Page 505)
Unquestionably a tour de force for what has been a favorite author anyway. A book about how the little things in our lives can make an enormous difference; absolutely unputdownable and oh so good.
What this is NOT is a story about reincarnation per se, despite the claim of several reviewers and the prefatory Nietzsche quote. In each of her "lives," Ursula Todd is the same person with the same name and the same family, born on the same day, in the same year; hers is not a spirit that passes on from one being or form to another. The book is also touted as a meditation on the choices that we make and the consequences that follow, suggesting the "What if?" that is the basis of the writer's exercise mentioned above. In each story/life, Ursula makes different choices or falls into different circumstances that lead to different outcomes, from being strangled by the umbilical cord during birth (hardly what I'd call a choice) to mundane deaths, violent deaths, accidental deaths, and into old age. Towards the end of the novel, she makes an observation that all time seems to be simultaneous--a metaphysical statement that may as easily be the novel's theme. "It seemed even the instability of time can't be relied upon," the young Ursula observes. In a later episode, Ursula experiences a moment of panic riddled with déja vu:
"She had been here before. She had never been here before. . . The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there was a fault somewhere, or was it the future spilling into the past? . . . Time was out of joint, that was certain."
Whatever its theme, Life After Life is a captivating story. In many aspects, the Todd family seems to represent the typical middle class British family of the last century, yet each member is also distinctive in his or her own right. Some, like Ursula's surly oldest brother Maurice, remain constant through each retelling; others, like her mother Sylvie, change considerably in reaction to events. It's easy to engage with interesting secondary characters like her wild aunt Izzie, Bridget the Irish maid, Miss Wolfe, and others. The depictions of the Blitz, brutal but realistic, are particularly affecting. Atkinson helps the reader to experience what life must have been like for those who experienced death and destruction on a massive scale, sensibilities numbed and life dominated by the need to carry on. However, I did find the long episode in Berlin with Eva Braun a bit tedious, although it does eventually link to others.
Atkinson's writing is indeed fine, at times poetic, at other times tersely straightforward, always perfectly pitched for the tone of the moment. Those moments range from charming to horrific, from humorous to spiritual, from jubilant to sorrowful--all the emotions of Ursula's many lives. Life After Life is, in fact, quite an emotional ride. At the conclusion, it still feels a bit unsettled and experimental, unsure of just what it means to convey to its readers. Still, the fact that it entertains so well while making one ask significant questions merits a strong recommendation.
Of course, we all know that our lives take unseen paths because of choices along the way, but I tend not to think too much about "what if." This novel explores those "what if"s of history through one woman's possible, parallel lives.
And what a wonderful novel this is. In 1910, Ursula is born and then she dies. Many times. The third child of a well-off family living in the English countryside, Ursula is a delightful protagonist with a distinctive voice (the novel is told in 3rd person, but her voice emerges perfectly through the dialogue). The novel rambles through the 20th Century, stopping briefly in WWI and spending a fair amount of time in WWII, as Ursula's many possible lives unfold. This novel beautifully explores the nuanced implications of minor choices, exploring the nearly infinite ways in which one's life can be impacted by single and apparently trivial decisions (as well as by some coincidences, of course). And while Ursula is Ursula no matter which path she takes, Atkinson does a lovely job of illustrating subtle differences in her personality depending on the path. She also invokes other literature to good effect.
Shakespeare, of course:
"'Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.' They were all walking shadows in Berlin. Life had mattered so much once and now it was the cheapest thing on offer."
And a good amount of John Donne.
But this is all Atkinson. Her wry humor is tone-perfect.
"That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) -- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one's foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward."
I found myself particularly enjoying Nietzsche's occasional appearance. Amor fati.
"It means acceptance. Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced, I suppose."
I'm a big believer in acceptance but this is a tall order and Atkinson's novel highlights the passion we tend to feel for life, the desire to make it last as long as possible, and the unquenchable (and futile) longing to get a redo now and then. Would a redo really matter?
To quote the last two sentences of the novel would be inappropriate, but I will say that they are the finest closing lines I have read in a very long time.
Ursula Todd is born February 1910, but dies before she is able to draw her first breath. “Darkness fell.” (14) On the same night, Ursula Todd is born and lives to lead what will be, to say the very least, a most unusual life – living and dying repeatedly from 1910 through two World Wars. The final glimpse we get of the protagonist is early in her retirement in 1967. While the circumstances of her birth remain much the same, Ursula dies at different ages, and in a variety of ways, as the story progresses. “Life after life,” she is haunted by déjà vu, and by an awareness of how she might change destiny by altering a single, seemingly insignificant, behaviour – the question is, will she? Such is the premise of Life After Life.
What I Liked: Atkinson’s writing is stellar, and her characters are fabulously well-developed, as I’ve come to expect from her. I was fascinated by Ursula’s relationship with time: déjà vu, circularity of time, that memories sometimes happen in the future, Neitzsche’s “amor faiti,” to name a few. But I was most taken her declaration that time was indeed not circular, but rather a “palimpsest.” That one sent me to the dictionary where I discovered: “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.” Perfect.
What I Didn’t Like: Oddly (or maybe not) I sometimes found myself irritated by that which fascinated me most: Ursula’s relationship with time – the constant leaping about grew tiresome after nearly 500 pages of it. And, honestly, I found Life After Life longer than it needed to be. It lagged for me at points, where I just found myself losing interest.
Overall, I think Atkinson’s accomplishment here is certainly noteworthy. Life After Life is well deserving of the accolades it has received. This is one that I recommend in general to lovers of literature and in particular to those interested in our relationship with time. For those who prefer a linear plot line, this is one to leave on the shelf.
“She was flying off a roof into the night. She was in a cornfield with the sun beating down. Picking raspberries in the lane. Playing hide-and-seek with Teddy. She’s a funny little thing, someone said. Not the warden, surely? And then the snow began to come down. The night sky was no longer high above, it was all around her, like a warm dark sea.” (21)
Most of all, it reminded me of a lit agent's blog post I read a while ago, on what makes books sell: an original hook or concept, everything else is secondary. So yes, it has a pretty damn good hook and the writing itself in terms of style is good too - but that's unfortunately where the positives end for me.
The things I disliked contain SPOILERS.
- Plot: Now, I am a professed reader of character-driven books. Plot is absolutely secondary to me usually. However as there is very little character-development either, I kept looking for a plot that wouldn't emerge. It's incredibly repetitive, and then gets over-done and ridiculous and the hook comes off as an excuse to subject the main character to all the most horrendous and depressing things without ever really having to deal with the aftermath because her life resets the moments she dies.
- Confusing! Speaking of the resetting, whenever Ursula dies, she resets to some place in her past for a do-over. But until the very end of the book, she has hardly any recollection of anything, so it's not interesting. It just means we read about her middle-class, very detached life over and over and over again. And not only is it repetitive, it's also intensely confusing because it's really hard to tell how far she resets and what are parts of her life and which were parts of the ones that reset. And whenever things get interesting it resets again... it's super annoying.
- Character-development: Because of all the resetting, there is very little of this. In the beginning, when Ursula is a child, there is still time spent on developing her character - she's very sweet and interesting and unusual. However, once she's an adult, everything seems to go into the different half "plots" with very little idea of how she feels about any of it. She doesn't really fall in love but shacks up with men from time to time, she likes dogs, she has a very depressing life but she has some strength... that's pretty much all I got from her.
Once, she has all her teeth and an arm broken by a husband, and all the reader gets is her leaving him and about a paragraph of recovery, not talking about it. Then the husband comes back, kills her and she resets. And so you never have to deal with the consequences of anything.
- The amount of clichés in this is incredible. I mean, she literally uses her finally emerging memories at the end of the book to try and kill Hitler. Yes, seriously. I can accept that from a spoofy show like Misfits, but in a serious book that is mostly trying to stay on the historical accuracy side of things I wanted to fling things across the room.
In conclusion -- I still have no idea what I just read (listened to, really, I did the audiobook version, if I hadn't I would never have picked it up again after virginal Ursula is raped and then immediately pregnant - argh!!!!). I felt like it was trying to be weirdly post-modern while maintaining a connection to the reader instead of that distance and it just didn't work for me at all. At all. I was either angry or confused basically the whole time and I only finished it because I wanted to figure out if there is a point to all of this. Spoiler: If there was one, I couldn't find it.
Early on Ursula is too often the victim of fate as her existence is cut short by accidents. But with experience and shadowy memory, she is slowly able to control her destiny a bit and twitch the outcome here and there. Each new birth returns to November 1930; each time the reader learns a bit more about Ursula and her family. And each time in her 'do over' Ursula makes slightly different decisions that alter the outcome just a little.
How Virginia Woolf would have enjoyed Atkinson's novel. It is surely no accident that Atkinson gives Ursula a mentor named 'Miss Woolf.'
Ursula lives her life over and over learning each time a little more about herself and learning to care a bit more about others in each of her incarnations. Events are far less important than understanding. The biographical facts of Ursula's life may vary, but the essence of Ursula remains constant.
This is a novel that forces the reader to think, to focus on the craft of the novel, to ponder time and change and to ask if one can step into Heraclitus swiftly flowing river without change? to anticipate how the novelist can keep killing the heroine and yet maintain the reader's interest?
Congratulations, Ms Atkinson, I had an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
(The reviewer received an ARC from the Amazon Vine Program.)
The interesting thing about constructing a "novel" in that way is you don't have quite the attachment to the main character as you do, say, in a novel where you are genuinely concerned for what's happening to the character at the time. Ursula (the protagonist here) lives, dies and lives again. Death becomes a literary reset button. You read, unworried about the (often) tragic fate about to fall our heroine, waiting for the imagery of dark, flapping wings and the repeated words "Darkness fell" to signal the next chapter in Ursala's life (lives).
Thus unencumbered, you can explore the setting, the meticulously researched history of early 1900's England through WWII and beyond (sometimes further than others). You can ponder the significance of a life repeated like this. You can analyze the message that Atkinson is trying to convey. (Is it a treatise on the hopelessness of war? The unpredictability of life's seemingly innocent choices? The preciousness of life itself? The question of what would you change if you could go back and start over? Something in-between or a composite of all?) Best of all, you can immerse yourself in her beautiful writing.
A word on that last: the writing is spectacular. Given the "experimental" structure of the novel, I'm amazed that she was able to pull this off so beautifully. It would have been easy to get too fascinated by the construct and, with nothing substantial to hold interest, lose the reader in the first half. In the hands of a lesser writer, that could easily have been the case. In a more (for lack of a better term, since I don't want to use the word "pretentious," let's say instead:) literary writer, you could get overwhelmed by heavy, self-indulgent prose that rambled on for ages and failed to pull the reader along for this cumbersome journey. But Atkinson approaches this "novel" like a series of short stories about Ursala's lives, each one hearkening back to the ones previous, but also able to stand on its own. Taken individually, they are all excellent stories. Taken collectively, they say something more powerful (see above).
I have only read Atkinson's Case Histories previously, and had sadly chalked her up as nothing more than a better-than-average mystery writer who I would revisit when I needed a palate cleansing light summer read. Now that I know better, I will certainly be seeking out more from this surprising talent. (I recently read that her next novel will be something like a sequel to Life, so I'm doubly excited.)
So disappointed was I by this novel, that I never got further than half way through. It now has the dubious honour of being the only novel I Did Not Finish this year.
I've always enjoyed Atkinson in the past so what went wrong this time?
The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
We've all been tempted to play that 'What If' game haven't we?. The one where you look back at your life and wonder what would have happened if only you'd made a different decision; that you'd said yes when he declared undying love and you just gave him the cold shoulder cos he was really the class nerd. Except years later he turned out to be a real dish. Or if only you'd seized that chance to go backpacking around Asia for a few months instead of working in a cafe before heading off to university. If only you had that opportunity to wind back the clock and take the untravelled road.
Wistful thinking for most of us but in Atkinson's novel, the central character Ursula Todd gets to do exactly that; to rewind the clock and to re-live her life many times over. She's born in a snowstorm in England in 1910 but dies at birth. Rewind the clock and she survives for a few years and then dies again when she falls off the roof of her house.
It's an interesting basis for a story and it moves along quite rapidly, Atkinson proving once again what a good storyteller she is. But - and it was a big BUT for me - the cleverness of the idea of a death/life repeating cycle quickly palled. It actually became tedious especially when the content in between wasn't particularly interesting. By the time the child is 5 she has died at least four times, during which time World War 1 has come and gone, an event dealt with in an unbelievable cursory fashion: Ursula's dad goes off to war, her mother starts knitting socks for the war effort, then whoosh, the war is over. It's not enough to counterbalance the number of twists in fate Atkinson introduces. Nor does this pace allow characters to be sufficiently developed to keep the attention.
The further I read, the more I felt that this was a book that was trying to hard to be clever. That she'd had this idea and was milking it for all it was worth but never really examining the most interesting aspect - what would you do differently if you had the chance to replay your life and take a different course. Maybe if I'd read to the end I would have seen more of this aspect as Ursula became an adult but as a child she never made any life choices, her deaths seemed primarily the result of external forces outside her control. Which made the premise of the novel meaningless for me.
I realise I might be a lone voice in disliking this book. Many people seemed to have loved it and couldn't understand why it wasn't even longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Assuming it was nominated (not sure how you can discover that) maybe it didn't make the list because the judges thought she had planted a seed of a good idea but never managed to get it to germinate.
It will not stop me reading her novels. I've enjoyed every one so far from Behind the Scenes of the Museum through to the Jackson Brodie series. Sorry Kate, this one didn't do it for me.
Ursula Todd, Atkinson’s focus here, experiences the “what if” and the “if only” in vivid and repetitive fashion as she proceeds to live and relive her life – each time somewhat differently (sometimes very differently) – in a process that must, I suppose, be interpreted as progressive. But progress toward what exactly? Is it the ultimate “do-over”? Ought we to suppose that we are all forced to relive our lives again and again until we get it “right”? And if so, what does “right” mean here?
Perhaps it is unfortunate, though unavoidable, that Atkinson’s narrative conceit will draw attention to the implausible metaphysics of its imagining. Although there is frequent mention of reincarnation in the course of the novel, what Ursula undergoes would not typically be described as reincarnation. There is no migration of souls; she is just the same person again and again. With slight variations due, again inexplicably, to premonitions intruding from one iteration into another that lead her to make somewhat different choices at key moments. Choices that have significant ramifications on her life as a whole. It’s all a bit silly really, and for me, at least it distracts from Atkinson’s otherwise significant gifts as writer.
I especially liked the lengthy treatment of life in London under the blitz. And I enjoyed the numerous secondary characters – Izzie, Pamela, Sylvie, Teddy, Miss Woolf – who come to life in these passages. It seems strange then, perhaps, that Ursula herself seems less lively, less real than those around her. But that, I think, may be an unintended consequence of the narrative conceit in play. So that what we have here is less Ursula’s story (since our sympathy is not bound to her) and more the story of a time and place. One rather wants to ask whether that is enough? Should we, at least with a novelist as accomplished as Kate Atkinson, hope for something more? I think so.
“No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.”In the next chapter, Ursula is born again, but the doctor managed to arrive before the storm closed the roads. The baby survives. “She observed the turn of seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mould and mushroom of autumn.”
Ursula is born in 1910. We already know that ahead of her are two world wars, the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic, as well as the potential calamities that may befall anyone, any time.
Just a beat of the butterfly’s wings and all may change.
She keeps being born and living longer, although not necessarily longer than the last time. Unlike the movie Groundhog Day, she doesn’t explicitly remember past events of the other existences. But deja vu is a sixth sense for her: “And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said or what mundane incident was about to occur.”
“Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.”
When she arrives at a point in her life where she had previously died, she feels ‘an imminence’, a shadow. “And the terrible fear — fearful terror — that she carried around inside her.” She gradually comes to realise that she has to do something to change the unknown but imminent event.
Life is a series of choices. Some choices at the time and up close seem inconsequential and minor, but each choice takes one along one path and not the other. Sometimes you can only recognise the really significant fork when it’s behind you, and you are now too far away to tread that path. “She no longer recognized herself, she thought. She had taken the wrong path, opened the wrong door, and was unable to find her way back.”
The story is like the tides of the sea. Like waves. The story comes in to shore, recedes, comes back in again but closer, then recedes. Each time the same but with a bit different shape, a bit further in, and always marking the passage of time.
Beautiful prose, wonderfully inventive plot line, and rich imagery -- this is her best work yet.
Meet Ursula Todd. Born in 1910, dying in... well, it is complicated. You see, the book follows her story through her different lives - where things go the same up to a certain point and then diverge. And this divergence leads to different life and sometimes a different death.
The first half of the book shows the life of an English girl that has enough money to be comfortable. She dies from fever, she dies in the sea; she survives the fever, she survives the sea. Every choice leads to somewhere - some choices made by her, some made by others. That part of the novel is a beautiful rendering of England during WWI and between the wars - even if some of the stories move to after WWII, the war is there mainly as a time more than really influencing anything. And somewhere there, Ursula start getting premonitions, she seems to think she knows what is about to happen. She does not remember her full lives but she remembers pieces in some cases and she acts on them - although in some cases the end result ends up being worse than the original.
And then in the second half of the book, it is the WWII years. Ursula dies in the raids, Ursula survives them, Ursula helps as a warden, Ursula end up as a German citizen - pretty much any possible permutation is covered. And a lot of those end up badly - one way or another. London and Berlin during WWII are two places everyone had read about but Atkinson somehow manages to find a way to make them new and exciting; seeing the connections between lives is fascinating. The action that saves her life in one life is what kills her in another; a chance meeting changes everything. Until almost the end when she seems to remember all, she seems to know why she has been having these multiple lives; until the day she lives the life that may have had saved Europe and the world.
The novel is as much a history of Ursula as it is a history of the English family; a way to explore the possible histories of the family. A single novel that tells the story of a lot of different people - by using the same people. It's one of those novels that stay with you, that make you want more. And at the same time - you know that it finished where it should have - exploring a history without Hitler to lead the war is not something that belongs to a family story.
Like all of us, she comes to many forks in the road throughout the story which by the way spans almost 60 years, or 35 depending on your own viewpoint. And the decision to go left or right is not always hers. But somehow, Ursula is given a do-over when the path taken may not be best for all concerned. We are given an example very early on in the book. In the opening pages, Ursula is being born. She dies at birth. Do-over! She lives. The story continues. Kind of.
Many, many times we come back to the night of her birth. Too many, by my count. Each time, a circumstance allows for her survival, and the reader learns a bit more about this character and that one, and then there is another fork further down Ursula's path, and .....Ursula seems to develop a foggy but incomplete understanding of what is going on. Does Ursula control events? Does she allow certain things to happen to force a second chance? Does she grow tired of the 2nd chances? Interesting questions, but not really anything to do with the point of the book.
I think what Atkinson is telling us is that as we reflect on our own lives we realize that we have encountered many forks. And there are probably situations that we didn't recognize as a decision point at the time. Sometimes we decide the path to be taken and sometimes others, or events, decide for us. Many times the path taken has tremendous impacts on those around us, even moreso than on ourselves. Occasionally, we don't fully appreciate nor understand what life would have been like had we taken the other road. In LL, Ursula gets to experience those alternate pathways. Atkinson has created a very novel way for us to witness answers to the "what if" questions.
The characters are all interesting and well done and Atkinson manages her cast well. It is a very nice story, and it is filled with humor, anger, tension, disappointment, and a dozen other emotions. There is romance and there is tragedy. There are incredible passages about the bombing of London, better than anything I have ever read. But I felt there were too many do-overs and in the final pages, forks seemed to be coming at the reader left and right. Many times, while reading LL, I paused to think what a great book this is. But there were too many times in the second half of the story when I thought I'm tired of this and I just want it to end, especially during the "German section". Sometimes less is more.
I had read a Kate Atkinson novel before (a crime novel about Jackson Brodie, private investigator) which I thought was okay, but didn’t set my world on fire. However, I thought that her writing was excellent and I’m glad that she has written a different genre this time. Life After Life revolves around Ursula, who is born on the 11th February 1910 and promptly dies. She is then born again and lives. This theme is repeated through the novel and I feel it’s like one of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books for children/teenagers. You don’t get to choose the path Ursula takes personally, but if she makes a wrong choice, she dies and the whole thing starts again. That might sound a little frustrating, but we don’t always go back to Ursula’s birth each time. There was one part where I felt really exasperated (where Ursula must prevent an event from happening to survive) because Ursula kept failing and then she’d die a horrible death – multiple times. There was another part where her life became utterly miserable and I actually hoped she’d die so free herself from the pain – it was agonising, but it did happen.
As you’ve guessed, Ursula dies at multiple times during the novel, turning her life towards different paths. Is each one better, greater than the last? Not necessarily – although she has the power of living her life several times, she’s still an ordinary person that dislikes her brother, has love affairs and suffers throughout World War II. Ursula also doesn’t really know that she has several lives – she does get odd feelings of déjà vu (especially when she dies multiple times in the same situation) and it does interfere with her future life sometimes.
So which is the ‘best’ life that Ursula leads? Is it one where she changes the course of history or lives a quiet, happy life? Atkinson doesn’t specify – it’s up to the reader to decide. Did she even make the best of it? Again, that’s a question for the reader and it will depend on the values that the individual holds as important – education, marriage, family and courage. As she leads multiple lives, it’s the reader’s choice to cobble together the ones that fit best. Atkinson is not specific whether Ursula’s story ends or is cyclical.
In between Ursula’s unusual talent is a lovely historical novel about family, growing up and relationships in England. There’s sure to be a lot to thrill those into symbolism and the deeper meaning of what Ursula’s life events all mean. There’s also a lot to enjoy if you like your characters to have a wide range of experiences with a story full of memorable characters. Ursula’s aunt is a scream – a fallen woman who defies convention to become independent and wealthy. Her sister is steady and dependable, while her brother is truly awful.
I really enjoyed the originality of this book, which kept me up very late on several occasions as I read feverishly, hoping Ursula would get her life ‘right’. A must read for 2013.
Thank you to Random House Australia for giving me an eARC to read.
Set during the first half of the 20th century in Britain, against the backdrop of enormous social and political change, fate twists capriciously for one girl born on a snowy evening in February, 1910.
For Ursula Todd, death is not the end, instead it is the beginning, another chance to get it right. Ursula does not remember her previous lives but instead is driven by a distorted echo that compels her to to sidestep the events that previously led to her demise. In one instance it takes several incarnations, and determined action, before Ursula is able to avoid succumbing to influenza. In another, significant change is effected simply by protesting against the unwanted attentions of a family friend. Details matter, a seemingly innocuous decision can lead to tragedy for herself or her loved ones, or avert it.
Ursula becomes many things, a secretary, a mistress, a battered wife, an air raid warden, a mother but she remains recognisably Ursula. That the string of fates Ursula experiences are wholly possible for a girl born into the genteel middle class in 1910, is what ensures the credibility of the story.
I am in awe that the author is able to so deftly manipulate the construct of time and reality without the concept falling into a muddled farce. Though it does help to pay close attention to the dates that head each chapter, the narrative moves smoothly between one timeline and another and becomes easier to follow as you gain familiarity with the structure.
Beautifully crafted, Life After Life is so much more than what the blurb promises, or than I can articulate. I found it a compelling, thought provoking and extraordinary tale.
When I first read the plot line of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life I immediately wondered how Ursula Todd would come back to life. Would it be like the movie Groundhog Day with all the frustration that came with not being able to escape the loop? Would she be aware of what was happening? Would other people be aware of what was happening to her? No matter how many possibilities I envisioned I was still surprised by the way Kate Atkinson crafted this plot. She wrote this story with such ingenuity and originality. It was never simple nor trite. I think that every time I feel déjà vu in the future I will think of this book.
Much of the story took place in London during the Blitz of WWII. These pages were frightening and heart wrenching. I could not put this one down once I began it. Atkinson gives the reader a very vivid view of war. She allows us to see its enormity and how distressing and wearing it is for all involved.
Life After Life is beautifully written and reads like a classic. Wonderfully complex, it's a story you could read over and over and always find something new and fresh. I loved this story and know that it won't be long before my next read.
Ursala relives various portions of her life over and over again. She sort of remembers bits and pieces (has these feelings) and changes her actions in accordance with these instincts/feelings in order to alter events. This occurs from an early age on through later in life.
I found the book tedious--it could have been a tighter book with 100 less pages. If found some events totally irrelevant to the story. Some sections were very short and others overly long.
I'm a big fan of Atkinson's mystery series, and while the concept of Life After Life (reliving life until you get it right--if that's possible), the execution left something to be desired.
Maybe I'm just not that "high falutin'" a reader. But give me a tightly, well written story and I'm there.
On the cusp of four stars, but something didn’t click for me. The middle 350 pages or so really pulled me in, but I felt that the last 50 pages fell short.
Longer Review (with the mildest of spoilers):
The writing in this book is beautiful. I believe this is the first of Ms. Atkinson’s books I have read, but I gather she is someone known for her prose. The premise of the book, for those who are unfamiliar, is that Ursula is born in February of 1910 in England, and immediately dies. And then she is born again, but something slightly different keeps her alive. This replays over and over again, without any real sort of pattern that I could detect; we don’t always get to a certain age and start over, or always start at the same point, or even necessarily get clued into *exactly* what it is that she may have changed to prevent her death.
Ursula dies at least a couple dozen times if not more, and only a few of the storylines get in-depth treatment. One of the more fascinating stories is of her choosing to marry a German in the early 30s and what that leads to; a different route leads her into a bad marriage. There are also some moments that at the time seem important, but now that the book has ended I can’t figure out what purpose they served (was her mother having an affair in one of the storylines, and did it matter?).
I think the most frustrating component for me was that everything felt like it could be more developed – I wanted to see more connections, learn more about what Ursula was thinking and feeling that lead her to make a shift in her life that prevented her death. I just don’t think we got that, so even though I found myself sucked in, upon reflection I can’t quite recommend it to others.
Atkinson's writing is clever, both the questions she poses and her ironic, satirical, sarcastic and often sardonic humor. Don't expect good-natured laughs based on happiness. It is solely because of the writing that I have chosen three rather than only two stars.
The book is confusing. Not only does the reader jump back and forth in time but also into different versions of the same story, the point being that there is not just one story. The stories overlap at points only to later go off in different directions. The reader must continually figure out if they have been dropped into a different version or a different time period of an earlier version. In addition, many characters are not introduced. When they are first mentioned you have not the slightest idea who they are.
By the end everything is interwoven. Picture a twine of yarn that is split at several points, each strand going off in different directions. The reader hops back and forth to different segments. Is there one "correct" ending? Is there one preferable ending? Is it possible to choose the final destination? Most importantly, what is the message of the book? Was the message worth the confusion? In my view, the answer is no.
I thought the author magnificently described life in London both during the Blitz and after the war. I enjoyed the segment set in Obersalzberg, at Hitler's residence Berghof, near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Germany, meeting up with Eva Braun. This IS a book of historical fiction. Events of both WW1 and WW2 are covered.
The audiobook narration by Fenella Woolgar was exemplary. Irish, British, American and French accents are all perfectly executed. I believe the audio version further enhances how people of different cultures "think".
You must keep a paper and pen nearby to jot down the date of the episode you are listening to. In addition, I recommend you read this book quickly; if you read a little each day you are sure to get lost! Good Luck!
Completed April 9, 2013
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.
Yes, your life can change in a second. I've experienced those life-altering moments; probably everyone has. And yes, anyone can die at any time. But this isn't a novel. It's philosophy. And Atkinson, for all her craft and art, is no Camus (who also had the wisdom to keep it short).
Philosophically, this 529-page composition is closer to one of Nietzsche's zaniest ideas (Eternal Recurrence) than Camus, as she implicitly acknowledges with an epigraph. Fictionally, it makes a very odd pairing with a Jo Walton novel that I happen to be reading, My Real Children, which also treats the theme of life paths diverging from decision points. For now, I'll stick with the Walton.
What it lacks is the sustained plot and character depth that engage the reader emotionally. How many times does one experience the same sense of loss before it gives way to detachment? Mechanical devices evoke mechanical responses.
As I remarked on another thread, I keep feeling as if I were riding a carousel: we go around and around, but we don't get anywhere. After 150 pages, I'd call it a virtuoso performance, but cold.
(It also oddly echoes themes in Walton's "Small Change" trilogy having to do with Hitler's Reich, which are coming up simultaneously in A Spy Among Friends about World War II master spy Kim Philby. This conjunction of reading matter is purely coincidental.)
I loved Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels, and I'll probably go with her again somewhere else, but I guess I simply lack the endurance for this one.
It should make an awfully short book to have the protagonist die on the same page she is born, but Ursula is a very different kind of person. She has a bad habit of dying. Born dead, dead in her crib, dying multiple times as a child, as a young woman, and on and on. But, after each death, there she is again, with another chance to avoid catastrophe--at least the particular catastrophes that came before.
Ursula becomes anxious about the sense of deadly déja vu she sometimes has, while her family's anxiety is piqued by the odd and unpredictable things she says and does. The Todd family's maid, Bridget, says young Ursula has the second sight, but the psychiatrist she's packed off to see thinks she is an "old soul," and her memories are of future events. If she is an old soul, can she devise a plan that will avoid the calamities, personal and more wide-ranging, that life seems to have in such plentiful supply?
Just as Ursula's life takes many different paths--or, I should say, lives take many different paths--there are different ways of reading this inspired novel. You may read it for the sheer pleasure of the story, which often resembles Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, a semi-autobiographical comic novel about the famous Mitford family, with their six daughters and one son who were (mostly) Bright Young Things of the 1920s and notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for their extreme political views. Ursula's sister Pamela reminded me of Pamela Mitford, her brother Teddy of Tom Mitford, her aunt Izzie of Nancy Mitford. Several events in the book are reminiscent of those described in The Pursuit of Love and in nonfiction books about the Mitfords. There is even a brief reference in Life After Life to one of the Mitfords, which made me feel the resemblances between aspects of the Todd children and the Mitfords weren't accidental.
Reading just for the story is rewarding because Kate Atkinson has a gift for narrative; capturing the tragic comedy in life, where history and circumstance make all of our plans foolish. Her stories nonchalantly trip along, even amidst brutality and grim death. Like Pogo, Atkinson seems to believe that life ain't nohow permanent, so we might as well get the most out of it all, even its grotesqueries.
Atkinson makes it easy to fall in love with her characters, despite--or maybe even because of--their flaws. And Atkinson's depiction of time and place are so vivid I felt I was there on the terrace at Fox Corner with the shadows lengthening on a summer evening; there building sand castles on the beach with the Todd family; there in London with Ursula during the relentless bombing of the Blitz, and the endlessly cold and gray days after the war when continued scarcity of food, gas and electricity made life as bleak and grinding as wartime--except without the excitement of fighting to survive the Nazi attackers.
But as you're reading this Mitford-esque, but oh-so-Atkinsonian, tale, it's hard not to get caught up in the intricate structure of Atkinson's clever plot. I found myself paying careful attention to the chapter headings and poring over the table of contents after I'd read it, to study the structure of the book and tease out hidden meanings. When you read it, make sure to draft some friends to read it at the same time so that you can talk about Ursula's lives, and especially the meaning of one of its chapters.
Wry, suspenseful, thrilling, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, Life After Life is a delightfully fresh and inventive novel that should make many 2013 best books lists, and very possibly become an enduring classic. I know I'll be bending everyone's ear to encourage them to read it early--and often.
Disclosure: I received a free publisher's review copy of this book.