Friday, November 20, 2015

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

fpo  In Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life a woman called Ursula Todd is born, lives, and dies, and then repeats the cycle over again, and again, and again. Her first life lasts only a minute, maybe less actually, for she dies before even taking her first breath. The next time Ursula is being born the doctor makes it in time, and she lives a little longer. Each life is a little bit longer than the last, at least in the beginning.  

Ursula’s multiple lives were fascinating, especially the ones set against the backdrop of World War II. Through Ursula, Atkinson shows the War and its impact from different points of view. In one life Ursula is married to a German man she met before the war started and finds herself trapped on the wrong side when the fighting starts. In one life (or maybe it is more than that, sometimes I lost track when one life had ended and another had begun) she befriends Hitler’s mistress Eva. In some lives she is a single working woman while in others she is a stay-at-home wife. At least once she is a mother. Sometimes Ursula works for a branch of the British government having to do with the war effort. Still in other lives she is an ordinary Londoner trying to survive as the city is being bombed.

This may sound morbid, but Ursula’s multiple deaths were also interesting. She dies in all sorts of ways: drowning, falling, in an explosion, by suicide, to name a few. Sometimes her death is an accident; other times it is intentional.

This is not a supernatural novel, as the premise might suggest. Ursula doesn’t consciously know that she is repeating her life, although she does have a strong sense of déjà vu. Aside from the repeated life cycles, the story, or perhaps stories would be more accurate, is relatively simple. With each life cycle, we get to see the different ways a life can play out. It turns out a life is as much the result of a series of choices as it chance and circumstances.

I really liked the idea behind this book – seeing how difference choices, one’s actions and reactions to events, and random chance can lead down different paths. Though as much as I enjoyed reading about Ursula’s different lives, I wouldn’t say I loved this book. After a certain point, I started to lose track of the different lives and it became difficult to get invested in any one of Ursula's lives. In a certain sense, this novel seemed like a connection of closely connected short stories that were so similar to one another that after a certain point any single story lost the impact it might have had, had been a story on its own. Still, I do admire Atkinson's ambition and skill. While the novel as a whole wasn't my favorite there are some passages that will stay with me for a very long time.