Review: Life After Life; Kate Atkinson

Unusual, but interesting… (3.5 stars)

Source- borrowed from a friend.

Published by Doubleday, March 14th 2013

I read the hardback edition which was 479 pages 

This is the first Kate Atkinson book I’ve read and I was undecided as to how to rate it at first, as for me it fell somewhere between a 3.5 and a 4 star read. Its premise was sublime, the characters well-developed and I really appreciated its strong sense of atmosphere. In the end however, the pace was just too slow for me to allow me to entirely fall in love with it and I must confess that I struggled with it towards the end, wondering if it was ever going to get anywhere. 

Imagine if you could go back and live your life over and over until you got it ‘right.’ For Ursula Todd, that isn’t just wishful thinking… 

Born during a blizzard in 1910 with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, baby Ursula dies before she can even take her first breath. During that same snowstorm, she is born again, only this time she lives to tell the tale. This is a story about second, third and even fourth chances, fate, a way to live your life and to save the world from its own inevitable destiny. What if you could go back and start over if it meant saving the lives of countless others? Would you even want to? 

This book was beautifully written with some very evocative scene-setting that pulled me immediately in to the story. Though it seemed to take a while for much ‘action’ to actually commence, I was drawn to the characters from the outset, all of whom who were really well-crafted and who I enjoyed getting to know as they made their own individual journeys through life. Ursula herself was fascinating, both as a young girl and later as the adult she became. I liked how her siblings were portrayed- some of whom she shared very close bonds with (Teddy and Pamela) and the dynamics of the relationships she had with her parents and her flaky aunt Izzie.  Life After Life was very much a turbulent journey through twentieth century history, told through the eyes of one memorable protagonist. 

The depictions of Europe during WWI and WWII were vivid and startlingly graphic in their intensity. From the horrors inflicted on the soldiers in the Great War, to life in London during the Blitz, I thought Atkinson pulled those aspects of the novel off beautifully. It is hardly surprising that having witnessed so much violence imparted on those whom she loves, Ursula would feel compelled to try and change it. She too, suffered greatly in her own parallel lives, and each time I found myself hoping that this time, for her, things could be different. 

As for the premise of the story itself, the notion of someone being able to go back and change their past was genuinely fascinating for me. After all, who wouldn’t want to go back and change the bad parts of their own history if they were given the opportunity? To write a wrong perhaps, or make amends. What did bother me though was the continual repetition evoked by these parts of the story; Ursula finds herself reliving and encountering some of the same aspects of her past over and over- and no matter how talented a writer Atkinson is- these particular facets of the storyline bored me. They became a bit tedious, though of course this aspect of déjà vu was necessary for the plot. 

Saying that, the cause and effect of these decisions and her going back and altering the past was really interesting in itself, which I realise is something of a double-edged sword. Ursula would manage to change one seemingly unimportant thing, yet this tiny deviance would incur some new problem that impacted on her and her loved ones in an entirely new way. It does make you consider fate and our paths in life and in that respect, was indeed thought-provoking. I also appreciated how some of the characters in Ursula’s lives ‘crossed over’ in minor ways; she would have always encountered them in some respect in one of her parallel lives and it was interesting to witness how this happened- her one-time abusive husband for example, and friend Renee. 

I think most of all, it was the ending of the story that disappointed me. It felt too abrupt and though the story came full circle once again, I found myself not entirely believing in it. Without the risk of giving away any spoilers, I’m also not convinced that Ursula would have been able to shape the sort of friendship that she managed, in order to change history- fascinating though the notion was- it seemed far too convoluted for my tastes. 

Though imperfect in its delivery, I’m genuinely glad I experienced this novel, which was an appealing blend of magical realism, alternative historical fiction and was abundant with possibilities. I would read more from Kate Atkinson in future as I really enjoyed her beautiful prose and solid characterisations- she’s an amazing author; I’m just not sure if this book was perhaps the best place for me to start with her work.

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