Back Bay Books, 2013.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, a woman who is born over and over again, living every possible version of her life. She also dies in every possible way, in spite of the premonitions of her past that haunt her. It is a study in quantum mechanics, in which all versions of Ursula are living (and dying) simultaneously, depending on the choices she makes – or the choices that are made for her. Atkinson’s writing is structurally playful – a risky choice that could become gimmicky, but I think it worked well. The novel explores whether fate can ever really be changed, as Ursula faces new challenges and narrowly avoids the ones that she didn’t survive in the past.
I was captivated from the first scene of Ursula’s life, and I think it was a great choice to start her story in the middle of the action, as opposed to her birth. It was unpredictable and created some nice foreshadowing, as well as a connection to historical events. In the opening instance of Ursula’s life, she sacrifices everything to potentially thwart Adolf Hitler’s plans before he can enact them, in 1930. The chapter ends ambiguously, with Ursula born again on the following page. Regardless, the figure of Hitler looms large throughout the book – even when he is not physically present, the Todd family are living in the shadow of war. Upon meeting him, Ursula reflects that Hitler “was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become” (p. 360). However, one of the great themes of this novel is whether we can ever choose who we become – Ursula’s outcome seems inevitable and almost predestined.
Envisioning the struggle to carry on a normal life in the face of war is the real strength of this novel. It is historically well-researched but not exhaustingly so – the reader is not pushed out of the plot with endless facts. Instead, I felt like I was really there, trying to live a relatively normal life during the London Blitz. The story returns repeatedly to Ursula’s birth in 1910, to the pastoral life of the Todds before the wars, so we approach the war through new eyes with each life she lives. The birth scene starts Ursula’s life again and again, but also creates new chances for the entire country and ultimately the world – it causes us to question whether one woman’s actions could have changed the outcome of World War II.
Life After Life is a reflection on the mortality that we face daily, and leads us to question how often in a lifetime we narrowly elude death. There is no definitive ending to Ursula’s cycle of rebirth. She continues to be born, and does her best to bear witness to the daily disasters of war, bringing purpose to her many lives: “the practice of it makes it perfect” (p. 509). Not only thought-provoking, this was also a well-written story that was a joy to read. I am excited to read Ursula’s brother’s story in her upcoming novel, A God in Ruins – but which of Teddy’s realities will be portrayed?