I had been meaning to read Life after Life ever since it was recommended to me; the plot itself and the idea of reincarnation intrigued me, so I ordered a copy for myself and jumped right in. It’s taken me a while to get through, mostly due to the fact that studying English Literature at Uni requires I read a million other books first. But I finally finished it after quite a few bed time reading sessions, and boy, was it a good read!
A little bit of digging into Kate Atkinson’s biography told me that this is her ninth novel. From what I have read so far, I can say that Atkinson likes to experiment with the form and structure of literary writing, and perhaps that is why her books appeal to such a huge audience.
Atkinson questions that notion of reincarnation and what it would entail if “we had the chance to do it again and again … until we finally get it right?”. Life after Life focuses on being given the chance to relive your life over and over again, only this time by choosing to do things a little differently. In the opening passage, set in 1930, the protagonist addresses and shoots a man she calls the ‘Führer’. The next scene changes to 1910 where a baby girl is born and with the absence of medical intervention, swiftly dies. The scene is replayed again, but this time a doctor makes it in time and baby Ursula survives. And so carries on the vivid tale of Ursula…
With Ursula dying and getting to live again, it almost started to feel like a game of snakes and ladders, where she gets bitten and falls down continuously, only in this book, all the way to the start. In my opinion, all of the suspense and narrative tension is pinpointed on how long Ursula will get to live in each span of her life. With different descriptions for every event, there is the addition of extra context and slight circumstantial changes, and it dawned on me that Atkinson was after something more than a novel about a girl’s life in wartime; it’s far more subtle and complex.
Without giving any spoilers away, each individual strand of Ursula’s ‘parallel universe’ or ‘reincarnated’ life, what have you, has a different outcome depending on her conduct in that particular life. While it is indeed a book about her struggles in life, it also sheds a vivid light on the wartime work of rescue teams, when most of Britain was being bombed and with nations pursuing their grim agendas. As before, Ursula suffers another traumatic event, and the horror of the events are drummed in so hard that the logic of the novel itself becomes apparent: this war, or any war, should never have been allowed to happen.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to read a different kind of genre and a new inventive writing style. Life after Life continuously shuffles present and past and there were times when I was lost in strands of Ursula’s life. The use of non-linear narrative is a brilliant story-telling technique, and one that Atkinson masters. And in doing so, she garners a great deal of sympathy from her readers for Ursula who, like all of us, is immersed in this universal struggle, who yearns to save the lives of innocent people and those she loves. The only different is she has the ability to do; whether that’s a blessing or a curse, you can decide…
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