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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

Wow, this is an excellent book. Unusual and brutally sad, but excellent.

You’ve probably already read the description of this book: it’s about a character living her life over and over again, vaguely aware of what’s happened before and able to make changes and correct her mistakes. Ursula is born to an English family in 1910, and goes on to lead a series of lives, intersecting like puzzle pieces. This is anything but a straightforward narrative, sometimes jumping backward and forward in time, sometimes repeating the same scenario in several variations, sometimes splicing two or even three scenes together. But if you’re ready to pay attention and go along for the ride, if you like puzzles and complex structures and piecing things together as you read, it’s enormous fun.

Well, I say that, but at the same time it’s a tragic, sometimes harrowing book. Ursula dies any number of painful and detailed deaths: sickness, murder, suicide, the Blitz.... I wasn’t expecting how disquieting it would be to read all the stories leading up to these deaths. And yet, I wanted to read on, to see what other possibilities life had in store for the characters. It’s a vivid cast, sometimes changing (in some lives Ursula marries or has a child, in others she doesn’t), but more often staying the same (Ursula’s parents, her sister and three brothers, her eccentric aunt are all recurring characters), and I found their development deeper for the fact that they were living different lives. Perhaps the author had to know her characters even better than usual to imagine how they would have changed had their lives turned out differently.

On a technical level, I’m impressed with Atkinson's writing. She has a gift for detail, the lines of dialogue that encapsulate a personality, or the vibrant or visceral descriptions that bring a place to life. The story moves fairly quickly, without much time for lingering over the scenery, but I still had a strong sense of the places Ursula inhabits, inextricable from the emotions associated with them--that’s strong writing. Atkinson has a distinctive style, with some quirks a lesser writer wouldn’t be able to pull off (run-on sentences, for instance), but her writing is assured enough that they read as choices rather than mistakes.

The choices I question are in the development of the premise. It begins well enough, but the way Atkinson deals with the multiple lives is a bit inconsistent. Sometimes Ursula remembers enough to avoid death or misfortune, but then she dies three times in almost exactly the same way, for no reason I could discern. For much of the book she’s troubled by déjà vu, and seems to be the only one reliving her life, but especially toward the end, others start making different choices too, even before Ursula is born. And then, in what seems a last-ditch attempt to add some greater relevance to the story, Atkinson spends all of about 10 pages on the Ursula-kills-Hitler subplot introduced in the first chapter, without doing anything with it. An author toying with the idea of changing history, but shying away from imagining how history might actually have changed, is my biggest pet peeve in time travel books.

And I’m not sure this book needed any greater relevance. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction, bringing to life the time and place in vivid detail. It has just the right mix of familiar-seeming characters and locations with a dizzying array of fresh stories and realistic depth. It’s one of those books that looks at what women’s lives are really like without being heavy-handed about it, so that I suspect many readers miss how feminist it is; Ursula’s older sister, her aunt, and her female friends and colleagues all play key and largely positive roles in her life, and she pursues a career despite knocking up against the glass ceiling. It is a thinking kind of book, a portrayal of life where nothing is inevitable and two equally plausible choices can lead to wildly different results.

So, would I recommend this? Yes, if you’re open to non-linear storylines and willing to put in the effort. It’s the kind of book that rewards reading and re-reading. But keep something lighter on hand at the same time. You may need it.