Have you ever wished that you had a chance to do something all over again? To iron out the mistakes or maybe create a different outcome. To maybe get a second chance at life, right from the start; a life with a blank slate again. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life is one of my favourite novels of all time, alongside its sequel A God in Ruins. I loved her Jackson Brodie novels and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but this novel is something extra special. I’d never read anything like it outside of sci-fi novels.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
Atkinson does something profoundly special with this novel. It could have been a perfectly acceptable novel if it simply explored this baby girl’s lives from a personal and family perspective. However, Atkinson weaves Ursula’s personal story in with the state of flux in the early Twentieth Century. She takes in the demise of such upper middle class family’s like the Todd’s, from changes to social mobility, women’s roles becoming more prominent, and the loss of male members of the family due to WW1 and WW2. She explores the descent into WW2 and women’s roles in places like the war office and the secret services. In the multiple lives Ursula lives she can explore whether or not war could have been avoided, and what role she could have played in that mission. There’s so much going on that I can understand some reviewers finding it complicated to follow. The trick is to simply go with it. Eventually Ursula has longer lives where these issues can be explored in depth.
I fell in love with the Todd family and their genteel English way of life that can be summed up in a single phrase; ‘one does as one must, and then has tea’. All the female characters, including Sylvie and Pamela, are well fleshed out and it’s interesting to see what different paths their own lives took because of Ursula. I also had an incredible soft spot for Teddy – and loved that he got his own story in her follow up novel A God In Ruins. However, it is Ursula who holds our attention most and the endlessly inventive ways she dies in childbirth, from Spanish Flu, from drowning or by murder. She always has very strong perceptions, and experiences strong episodes of déja vu – although she doesn’t know she’s been here before, it seems she has gained some gifts from her other lives. There must be some residual wisdom from times when she’s been a mother or not, a wife or a mistress, someone who leads a quiet life in the country or goes to Germany and changes the course of history.
Atkinson’s sense of place is incredible. There are the lazy summers at the Todd family home, lounging in the garden or the kids exploring freely, climbing trees in the idyllic countryside. Her scenes in London are incredibly evocative, especially her descriptions based in historical fact. In one section their maid goes to a huge gathering in the capital to celebrate the end of WW1 and brings Spanish Flu back to the house. Her description of the London Blitz brings home how devastating and terrifying it must have been. We have a unique perspective as readers, we have an overview of every life Ursula lives, while she only knows the one she’s living in. Of course there are some events that repeat in every life – her birthday in 1910 is replayed twelve times – but these are important moments, where even the most subtle difference can send Ursula hurtling towards a different path in life. The novel evoked several other novels for me. The scenes at home with family in the early Twentieth Century reminded me of the long, languid summer of L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between. Scenes in London during WW2, and the concept of written lives versus the truth, reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan. I never became bored of going back to the beginning, but the other characters in Ursula’s life are so strong and well-written, it seems odd that once she dies, they no longer exist either. The author explores the dynamics of family, class, and how that changes so much at this point in history. There’s also grief – for other people, a way of life, a loss of innocence – and how that affects characters differently. I think this is an astonishing novel, beautifully written and managing to be both playful in structure but profoundly moving at the same time.
Next week for Throwback Thursday I will be looking at Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life. A God in Ruins overlaps with Ursula’s story in places, but is more focused on her little brother Teddy.
Meet The Author
Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).