Over and over again.
Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
First Published: 14th March 2013
Date Reviewed: 30th May 2013
Dying just after her birth, Ursula gets the chance to live again, and when she dies a little later in this second life, she is reincarnated a third time. Living many variations, covering many possibilities, Ursula slowly learns from the mistakes previously made.
Life After Life is a book that goes round in literal circles and has no end. Unlike similar though more specific stories – that of the film Groundhog Day and the Young Adult novel Before I Fall – Life After Life makes little note of the actual process, leading readers to work out the majority for themselves. This is both a positive and negative.
The only way, for most of the book, that the reader can know for certain why what happens happens, is through the book’s blurb. The book is structured so that Ursula constantly goes back in time, leaving out the sections she got ‘right’. It therefore does become difficult, on occasion, to know which version of events you’re reading at a particular time when there are multiple possibilities.
Atkinson deals with the deaths and rebirths in a swift manner, sometimes so swift the occasion doesn’t even get a full sentence. It is darkness and then birth, with very little wondering on what is happening and exactly why. If one considers other books that deal with a similar idea then one can assume Ursula has to get her life perfect in order to move on. Ursula makes a great many of the same mistakes each time, which adds to the confusion, and due to the way that the supposed goal is not reached, it does become difficult not to wonder whether Atkinson had any big plan for Ursula other than as a tool to present different periods and issues.
It may be, of course, that the structure of the book suggests that Ursula may never get it ‘right’ and that there are many more aspects to her life than the reader is privy to.
The book is understandably repetitious, and perhaps most interesting during times when Ursula experiences her so-thought deja vu. There is a lot of repetition about Ursula’s role as a warden during the blitz – it feels particularly repetitious but given that that was life, it is a fair shock about the reality of war, the gruesome details rarely displayed so much in other works.
This brings us on to the grittiness of the book. As well as the obvious idea, present from the start, that Atkinson wants to explore what might have happened had Hitler not existed or had been killed early on, there is also a great deal of feminism and sexism to be studied. There is one life in particular where Atkinson exposes the reader’s possible bias – you’ve been presented with a certain view of the family, got to know them, and then Atkinson provides a very different tale. This tale will likely colour the rest of your reading, quite rightly, and it packs quite a punch.
Because Atkinson highlights the way sexual education, when kept hidden from girls (her focus of course being early 20th century) can have dire effects. She shows how even after such effects girls still were not informed, and she displays the awful hatred of a parent who hasn’t bothered to teach her child anything but will curse them when a terrible event happens. This is perhaps far worse, in the context of the book, than the blitz. Atkinson successfully makes you love, makes you hate, and then she provides that necessary triumph of adversary in the next life that is so sorely needed. Her handling of every issue in the book is masterful, and due to Ursula’s constant reincarnation it allows for a particular modernity to grace the book. Being given many chances enables Ursula to be, if not a feminist, then pretty near one, and similarly she becomes a supporter or dissenter of other ideas, too. Having the hindsight everyone craves makes her, obviously, knowledgeable.
So then to the characters. Ursula is of course difficult to write about as her development is very different to your average person. She is likeable most of the time, and the rest of the time hard to understand. Given her vast experience, and the way it seems she needs to live correctly, it would be hard for her to be bad, though she does often make the same bad choices again and again. A lot of the other characters change depending on the life Ursula is currently living. There is a general focus on Teddy and Ursula’s other siblings, as well as many different versions of Izzie, who is another focus for issues.
In a book like this it’s difficult to find plot holes besides the end of the book, but given the way Atkinson rarely refers to the other lives a few things do feel amiss, for example at one time Ursula has a baby – assuming Ursula has a goal to work towards and there is thus some kind of Heaven or Nirvana in the future, where would the baby be every other time? All the other major and secondary characters are accounted for. And what exactly is the reasoning behind Ursula’s reincarnation? The blurb may suggest it, but considering that one ought to be able to read a book without the blurb, the book feels unfinished. Of course, again, that may be the point.
Life After Life is good, but it is repetitious in a way it needn’t have been, there is a great deal left unsaid, and the suggestion of intrigue at the beginning is nowhere to be found. Not explaining everything may work aesthetically, but it can leave you with a lot to think about and no way of being able to suppose correctly. At the same time the details are compelling and given the sheer number of lives, you do not end the book feeling dismayed that you’ll no longer know about the characters, because you’ve read so much about them already and truly do know them inside out, having had the opportunity to witness every part of their natures.
Ursula likely won’t mind if you like it or not. She’s already on to the next life.
June 19, 2013, 3:33 am
I ended up liking this one a whole bunch :) I wasn’t sure if it would be my style and I thought it might come across as too gimmicky but I enjoyed it. I can see what you mean about the repetition though.
June 19, 2013, 9:30 am
I’m way down the library waiting list for this one. Could be winter before I reach the top which might not be a bad thing as it sounds like it requires some concentration!
June 19, 2013, 1:40 pm
I’m still waiting on this one from my digital library, but I loooove your closing line of the post! You would have hooked me there even if I wasn’t previously hooked!
June 19, 2013, 3:54 pm
I’ve been looking forward to reading your thoughts on this one. I haven’t read it but have heard a lot about it. From what I’ve read before I can why you describe this book as a bit confusing at times. I’m intrigued by this book but will probably wait to read it. May be till when the hype dies down.
June 20, 2013, 9:47 pm
It’s funny, I just read a review of this book by Adam Mars-Jones in LRB. He made the point that if none of the lives are real or lasting, then everything’s pointless and it makes it difficult for the reader to care about the outcome. It does sound like a clever, thought-provoking book, though. Thanks for the review!
July 2, 2013, 9:17 pm
I enjoy Kate Atkinson’s writing style, although I haven’t read much of her work. I admit I’ve shied away from this book because of the reviews I’ve read of it, but the premise is intriguing.