Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlife_atkinsonUrsula Todd is born during a snowstorm in England in February 1910. The doctor is unable to make it through the snow; the umbilical cord is wrapped around Ursula’s neck; she is born blue; she dies.

Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm in England in February 1910. The doctor arrives in time to save her from a dangerous birth, and she lives – for a while, before being smothered to death in her cradle by a cat.

Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm in England in February 1910. After the Armistice in 1918, the Todd family’s maid, Bridget, goes to a celebration in London, and returns with the Spanish flu, to which Ursula succumbs.

Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm in England in February 1910. She grows up, moves to London, and dies in a cellar during the Blitz.

Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm in England in February 1910. In school, she has an aptitude for languages; after school, she travels in Europe, eventually settles in Germany, and becomes friends with Eva Braun.

These are only a few of the many lives Ursula leads. In each successive life, she is haunted by persistent deja vu. She sometimes senses when something bad is about to happen, and does what she can to avert it, but her actions are as likely to create worse consequences as they are to avert disaster. She never fully realizes or articulates to herself exactly what is happening, though she does grasp it in a vague way, and readers will pick up on the pattern (perhaps cycle is a better word) after a while.

“We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

Life After Life is a bit like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story, except that the author is making the choices, and she chooses all of them. A better analogy might be the movie Sliding Doors, but with many more doors, and Ursula goes through every door instead of choosing between them. Whatever your preferred description, Life After Life is a stunning, unique, creative, compelling story. As Sarah Lyall wrote in The New York Times, “Each version is entirely and equally credible. In this way, Atkinson gets to indulge in what might be the ultimate novelist’s fantasy: producing a never-ending story in which any past, any future, even any present, is possible.”

She had been here before. She had never been here before….The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past?….”Time isn’t circular,” she said to Dr. Kellet. “It’s like a…palimpsest….And memories are sometimes in the future.”

It is evidence of Atkinson’s skill that the reader is willing to invest and re-invest in Ursula’s character and the many different storylines. Some are easier than others to leave behind, and some linger in the mind. Each permutation also gives insight into the other characters, primarily Ursula’s family: her mother Sylvie, her father Hugh, Hugh’s sister Izzie, the Todds’ cook and maid and neighbors.

I feel as though this book is larger than I was able to wrap my mind around fully in just one reading, and I’d love to read it again and discuss it. (Book club…?)



2 thoughts on “Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

  1. […] Life After Life by Kate Atkinson Life After Life is like the movie Sliding Doors, but with more doors; protagonist Ursula Todd tries them all, dying and being reborn into her same life again and again. Born in England in 1910, Ursula lives through (or doesn’t) World War I, the Spanish flu, World War II and the Blitz. It’s historical fiction, time travel, and philosophical what-if all rolled into one masterful book. […]

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