There are some living authors with which, as a reader, the release of something new of theirs is really one of the highlights of your bookish year. I have had a few of these this year, though the one I have been the most excited about is undoubtedly Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’. Part of this was just because it was a new Atkinson book full stop, then I was even more intrigued when I discovered this wasn’t a Brodie novel before got far too excited about the murmurs of this being a speculative novel. The book arrived here back in late 2012 and stayed on my shelves, I was just too worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype I had built in my head. Then the praise started to flood in here there and everywhere for it and I had a small sulk that I hadn’t read it sooner, then I started it when Gran was getting very ill (she would have loved this as she was a massive Atkinson fan) and I couldn’t concentrate. The poor book, it couldn’t win, I don’t think it knew if it was coming or going. Finally a few weeks ago I simply sat down with a few hours to spare and started it, within pages I was spell bound.
Doubleday, hardback, 2013, fiction, 480 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
On the 11th of February Ursula Todd either dies or is born, again and again and again to die again and again and again. The concept, and I suppose you could call this a concept novel in some ways, of Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ is to look at all the environmental and physical aspects of our lives, as well as the decisions that we make, that can coincidentally or accidentally change the path our lives take which of course eventually leads us to death. Doesn’t sound too cheery that really does it, yet if you excuse the pun it is a book that celebrates life and all that we can become be it through fate or choice.
As Ursula lives these differing versions of her lives we see all the possibilities of who she could be (well most of them as with this premise they could go on indefinitely) or what might befall a woman living from 1910 onwards. In one version she might not make it past a family holiday. In another, which is at the very start of the book so I am not spoiling anything, she could end up being the woman to assassinate Hitler. In another she ends up, via a wrought but beautifully crafted version of events, as a rather unhappy housewife in the suburbs. In others she ends up on either side of the channel after surviving the First World War only to end up in the second which, to me looking back on the book, really evokes the frailty of life in general but particularly during that period of British history.
You might be wondering if this means there are endless versions of Ursula wandering around, or if indeed the book gets a bit complex or ultimately becomes rather repetitive. Interestingly as I read on I didn’t think to question the premise of the book, I simply got lost in it. Yet Atkinson does some very clever things to make this more than just a tale of a girl born again and again with no knowledge of it. Ursula herself has lots of severe cases of déjà vu, something we have all experienced at some point, where she feels she has been there before or will finish of someone else’s sentences. This sees varying versions of her going into therapy as her mother (who we will come to later) starts to worry that her daughter is not right – especially when Ursula occasionally gets the inexplicable feeling she needs to change a course of events to rather comical effects.
“And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur – if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.
‘Everyone feels peculiar from time to time,’ Sylvie said. ‘Remember, dear – sunny thoughts.’
Bridget lent a more willing ear, declaring that Ursula ‘had the second sight’. There were doorways between this world and the next, she said, but only certain people could pass through them. Ursula didn’t think that she wanted to be one of those people.”
In terms of the question of repetition, I never got bored with the book or thought ‘oh here we go again’, not once. If anything I would try and work out which way her life would lead us next. Invariably I got this completely wrong as Atkinson doesn’t always make a life relived have a different outcome even if some things have changed along the way, after all fate can be sealed. Sometimes (rather worryingly) I was also wondering with slight glee how on earth Atkinson was going to kill Ursula off next. Which nicely leads me to mention how the trademark dark humour I love in Atkinson’s writing can lighten the story when needed, drive home something sad with its sense of irony and creates some utterly brilliant characters like Ursula’s mother, who I adored and is probably the most complex character in the book. I would love a novella of Sylvia’s life should Kate Atkinson ever feel the need, she had cynicism, hidden depths and a really darkly naughty side which I loved.
“Sylvie and Mrs Glover were preparing a little tea-party, ‘a surprise’. Sylvie liked all her children, Maurice not so much perhaps, but she doted entirely on Teddy.”
This does lead me to a couple of niggles with the book, firstly Ursula herself. To me she always seemed rather at a distance from me, a bit of an enigma, and someone that even though I spent pages and pages with her as she grew older I didn’t feel I got to know her any better. On occasion I found myself less moved by her deaths and more moved by some of those around her. Secondary characters like her mother, her aunt or siblings seemed to have much more depth, though interestingly in each version of events none of their personalities changed.
Another small niggle was that on the cover of ‘Life After Life’ perspective readers are asked “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” Well despite the book never being confusing (you thought I had forgotten to address this didn’t you) which could so easily have happened I was left a little confused by the ending of the book. It doesn’t spoil the book to say that after some serious thought about it I am left with a sense that there is no ‘right way to live your life’ and no neatly tied off endings and that the book leaves that question in the air rather than answering it. I think though that might be the point, as you can see I am still a little unsure and pondering it. Mind you I felt the same way about ‘Human Croquet’ with its magical and ambiguous ending for a while after reading it before I thought, as I am already beginning to think, ‘no, Atkinson is a genius’.
Those are two very small issues though and ones that are easily glossed over by the fact that Atkinson is a master of prose in my eyes. I love the way she gives the readers discreet asides and occasional knowing winks. I love her sense of humour, especially when it is at its most wicked and occasionally inappropriate. I think the way her characters come to life is marvellous and the atmosphere in the book, particularly during the strands during World War II and during the London Blitz (though I didn’t think the Hitler parts of the book were needed, even if I loved the brief mention of Unity Mitford) along with the tale of her possible marriage were outstandingly written. There is also the element of family saga, the history of Britain from 1910 onwards and also how the lives of women have changed – all interesting themes which Atkinson deals with throughout.
‘Life After Life’ is not a perfect book, yet the more books I read the less I believe there is such a thing, yet it is a bloody good one. In fact, because he didn’t think I would, I would go as far as to repeat what I said to Gav Reads after I had finished it… ‘It’s a really f**king good book’, strong language but sometimes it is needed to drive a point home. I will be recommending ‘Life After Life’ to pretty much everyone as I think it shows the workings and joys of one of our greatest living authors.