Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson (website)
Pub. Date: April 2, 2013
Summary: On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history has plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.
They had triumphed over death this night. Sylvie wondered when death would seek his revenge.
Unbeknownst to Sylvie, death already has sought his revenge – had already claimed his prize long before she was born and long after her children have gone. On a cold, snowy February night in 1910, Sylvie gave birth to a baby girl. The snow had closed the roads and the midwife couldn’t reach Fox Corner in time so Sylvie had to make do with the help of the 14-year old maid. The baby had been strangled by her umbilical cord, swiftly ending a life that had barely begun.
On a cold, snowy February night in 1910, Sylvie gave birth to a baby girl. The snow had closed the roads and the midwife couldn’t reach Fox Corner in time so Sylvie had to make do with the help of the 14-year old maid. This time, however, the baby lived. The doctor was able to reach the house and Ursula Todd made her way into the world.
Growing up, Ursula knew she was different. She’d occasionally get glimpses of memories or feelings of dread, sparks of recognition that would leave her confused and cautious. Over time, she accepted these moments and it was through the help of Dr. Kellet that Ursula learned her déjà vu might be something more.
Throughout her lives Ursula saw multiple wars, married, remained single, took on various lovers, became a mother, died childless, drowned at the beach when she was 4, joined a team of ARP wardens during the Blitz when she was 30, became friends with Eva Braun and hatched a plan to become close to Hitler.
On a cold, snow February night in 1910, a baby girl was born.
It’s time, she thought. A clock struck somewhere in sympathy. She thought of Teddy and Miss Woolf, of Roland and little Angela, of Nancy and Sylvie. She thought of Dr. Kellet and Pindar. Become such as you are, having learned what that is. She knew what that was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness.
Life After Life is like a onion with its numerous layers, many of which aren’t clear until halfway (or more) through the novel. Prior to this book, I had never read Kate Atkinson but had always heard wonderful things. As soon as I heard about this book, I was intrigued: going around again and again through a life? Who hasn’t wished to revisit a past experience, thought ‘if only I would have…‘ Ursula’s lives aren’t always picture-perfect and more than once I felt a sense of dread when her path crossed with a man who – in one life – became her abusive husband or one of her brother’s friends who brought shame upon the family after Ursula wound up pregnant at 16. Although she was unsure as to why, Ursula’s instincts kicked in and she altered the course of her (current) life.
The majority of Life After Life deals with both World Wars: Ursula was born just before the first and did her part, along with the rest of England, during the second. While I’ve read many books set during these wars, Ms. Atkinson’s writing really hit home for me. Not once did she gloss over the gruesome and horrifying details. As an Air Raid Warden, Ursula had to enforce the Blackout and after bombings, she would go through the rubble in an attempt to uncover survivors.
War isn’t pretty and Ms. Atkinson captured it perfectly. Soldiers weren’t the only ones to see death and Ursula saw her fair share: burns, blood, scattered limbs, and bodies blown in half were, sadly, her norm.
Teddy had faith in poetry. As if merely quoting from Shakespeare would mollify a situation.
Life After Life isn’t completely bleak. Ursula grew up in an extremely loving family and I came to care for her siblings just as much as I cared for Ursula. Her older sister Pamela was a joy – funny and no-nonsense. While he wasn’t the youngest, Teddy always remained the baby of the family, always the favorite. Ursula’s Aunt Izzie was wonderful; she was undeniably selfish and crass with extremely loose morals: she was rarely without a lover (usually a man in a position of power – especially during Blitz) and had quite the affinity for wine.
One day, of course, all this would be consigned to that same history, even the mountains – sand, after all, was the future of rocks. Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future. Only a true narcissist could do that. And Speer was designing buildings for Berlin so that they would look good when they were in ruins a thousand years from now, his gift to the Führer.
Life After Life is not a lazy Sunday read. Though there are many witty and humorous scenes, this is not a fluffy, easy-going novel. After closing the book, I sat still, very much overwhelmed, and let the full weight of the story wash over me. As I watched each layer slowly unfold I was hit by the realization of just how deep this novel reached. Every little detail has a purpose, every single decision was made for a reason and carried a particular consequence.
Life After Life is a novel that will stick with me long after I’ve moved on to other books and I wouldn’t be surprised if it winds up on multiple bestsellers lists. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, quick read, head elsewhere. However, if you’re interested in a book that will enchant and ensnare you – and, ultimately, make you think – look no further.