Book Review – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I loved this book. I loved the premise, I loved the characters, I loved the setting. Truly excellent.

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910. She dies immediately, unable to take her first breath due to the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910.She grows up to be a suburban housewife in England, to be friends with Eva Braun in 1930s Germany, to aid in rescues during Air Raids in 1940s London.

Over and over again, Ursula lives and dies and lives.

How might your life be different? What tiny choice or reaction might have made a huge change? What if you’d been just a few minutes later for that train? What if you hadn’t kissed that boy?

Ursula lives her life over and over again, vague premonitions causing her to take a different route, make a different choice. Sometimes she seems to have memories, to know people, she couldn’t possibly.

We watch as her choices alter where she goes, who she befriends, and her very personality. I found myself reading eagerly, rooting for Ursula to get a better ending, hoping for her death that she might begin again. This book was the best Choose Your Own Adventure I’ve ever read.

Ursula’s choices often change the lives of those around her. A young girl lives or dies based on a fluke of timing. Her brother’s future is altered. And some things stay the same in every life. Some marriages always occur, some deaths are unavoidable.

There are so many question raised in a story like this. Thankfully, Atkinson is a skilled writer who brings many of these questions to mind without voicing any. How much is Ursula aware of her unique circumstances? How much does she control? What would you change if you could? What do you have a responsibility to change?

There are no inevitabilities in Ursula’s life. There is not great romance waiting for her. There are happier and there are sadder versions of her life but the novel makes it clear that there is no perfect story line.

Partially, we can’t expect one when Ursula’s life is also shaped by world events and two world wars. In every version of her life, World War II looms large in Ursula’s adulthood. Her perspective shifts, her experiences of the war are hugely varied, but it seems unavoidable.

Scenes of Ursula’s life in London during World War II are vivid and well-written. Atkinson evokes all the grit and dirt and horror of a city at war, with small glimpses of a life still worth fighting for.

The characters who populate this novel are terrific. Ursula’s parents, Hugh and Sylvie, her siblings, her ditzy aunt. Sylvie looms large in Ursula’s childhood and at the beginning of the novel we get to delve into her mind and her past. She is a sympathetic, but not entirely likeable, figure and we watch the distance between mother and daughter grow and, sometimes, lessen, as Ursula re-lives her life. As Ursula grows, her father seems to as well, becoming a more and more important and tender figure every time she is reborn. Her brothers and sister each add something to the tale and to influence who Ursula is (with the possible exception of youngest brother Jimmy, who mostly feels tacked-on). Her brother Teddy’s fate turns out to be closely linked to Ursula’s own and this turns into a powerful motivation as she begins to become more aware of her unique circumstances. Characters and loveable and unlikeable and real all at once, a feat for any author to pull off.

Ursula’s relationship with each person – from her flighty aunt to the butcher’s boy – varies from timeline to timeline and it was delightful to witness a familiar character appear in a new version of Ursula’s life. Sometimes they shed a new light on an unanswered question in a previous version of her life but ultimately, Atkinson leaves us with many unanswered questions. I believe this was the best decision the author could have made. How could a story like Ursula’s ever really have an end?

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