Life after Life (2013)

by Kate Atkinson

Ursula Todd was stillborn — but then she wasn’t. She drowns in childhood; she is rescued from drowning. She is raped, impregnated, and has an abortion — no, she saucily sends the man off with a kiss. She is a mother; she is childless. She is in London during World War II, a member of a rescue team sent to bomb sites, and dies in the blitz; she is in Germany during World War II, a friend of Eva Braun’s, so she is able to keep company with Hitler and assassinate him.

Every time Ursula dies, there’s another version of her story. Atkinson seems to be commenting on the changeableness of fortune and the fragility of life — and maybe on the countless choices novelists can make. The restarts are confusing until one gets used to the pattern.

Is Life after Life a reflection on the age-old question of what you’d do differently if you had the chance to live your life over? It doesn’t appear to be. Atkinson doesn’t judge among Ursula’s lives, and Ursula has vague déjà vu but not real awareness of her different lives. Maybe Atkinson is saying that life is not a continuous upward trajectory, it’s difficult to do better.

There is much to admire about Life after Life, an ambitious novel by an author best known for her Jackson Brodie detective series. Ursula’s family relationships are finely drawn. The descriptions of London during the blitz are harrowingly palpable. It is a satisfying read, as long as you don’t expect to be sure about what it all adds up to.


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