There was a giant thunderclap, a great cracking noise as the wall of hell suddenly split open and let all the demons out and then the tremendous suction and compression, as if her insides, her lungs, her heart and stomach, even her eyeballs were being sucked from her body. Salute the last and everlasting day. This is it, she thought. This is how I die.
(from Life After Life, page 287)
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life depicts the many lives of Ursula Todd, who is born on February 11, 1910, during a blizzard, dies shortly after, and is immediately born again. Ursula will experience the falling darkness of death and be reborn on that same snowy night more than a dozen times over the course of the novel. From illness to accidents to war and more, Ursula fumbles through life and death, plagued by nagging feelings of impending doom, déjà vu, and the knowledge that she must somehow do something different this time.
Every time Ursula is reborn, more layers are added to her character, and readers can assemble a clearer picture of her parents, her relationships with her siblings, and her kinship with Aunt Izzy, the black sheep of the family. Atkinson brilliantly sets the novel during the World Wars, providing a backdrop of social upheaval, grief, and severe hardship for many. She takes readers to London during the Blitz, to Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, and to a desolate, hopeless Berlin as World War II draws to a close. Ursula lives ordinary lives, and she lives extraordinary ones, too, socializing with Eva Braun in Hitler’s Berghof or working tirelessly during the bombing raids in London.
Like most people, Ursula experiences moments of great happiness and great pain, but Ursula is unique in carrying the heavy burden of many lifetimes of past mistakes and even moments of inaction that changed the course of her life and the lives of those she loves. Atkinson makes readers think about whether getting to do it all over again (and again) would be a blessing or a curse, whether such power could (or should) be used to change the course of history, and whether we’d just keep making the same mistakes without end.
Life After Life is a beautifully crafted novel whose impact on me has not lessened in the weeks since I finished it. Atkinson has created an amazing character in Ursula — someone so ordinary and so endearing yet called to something too big for us to wrap our minds around. If I hadn’t grown to care for her, to cheer her on every time she struggled through another life, and if Atkinson had not set the book in such a fascinating time period, it might have grown as tedious as the title sounds. But in Atkinson’s skilled hands, Ursula and her story (gift? plight?) will not be easily forgotten. Life After Life is a powerful, brilliant novel about how seemingly insignificant events can change the course of your life, and because being given a second (or third or fourth) chance doesn’t mean we’d get it right (whatever “right” means), we can only live the best way we can in the here and now.
Disclosure: Life After Life is from my personal library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.