Life After Life has been on my radar for over a year. It sounded intriguing – what would happen if you lived your life over and over again, and how would minute changes in your choices and actions affect that life? I was intrigued, but not drawn in. My mom read it with her book club late last year and her reaction to the work was “it was different. Not bad, but definitely different.” With that less than stellar review I pushed it further down my to-read pile. Then the ladies of the Go Fug Yourself Book Club on Goodreads decided that it would be the October book choice, and I decided it was time to tackle this winner of many awards.
In this tale of alternate life trajectories, we explore the life of Ursula Todd, born February 10th, 1910. In each new cycle of her life we are drawn back to the beginning, and the book itself starts with the duality of Ursula dying without ever taking a breath and Ursula surviving being born with her umbilical cord around her neck. It is certainly a plot structure that takes some getting used to, as the reader bounces up and down the various timelines of Ursula’s life, but to my mind Ms. Atkinson found the sweet spot between an adventurous and slightly experimental story structure and just telling an interesting tale.
There is a lot I liked in Life After Life. Atkinson’s word choice is crisp and evocative. There is certainly a danger or becoming overly repetitive in revisiting the same scenes but this book doesn’t fall victim to this danger. The characterizations of the various members of the Todd family are clear throughout, which is lovely, since it gave the reader something to latch onto.
As a book about the life of Ursula Todd, this succeeds brilliantly. The portions of the over 500 pages which were about Ursula, her parents, siblings, and her adventures in England and Germany around the advent of WWII were interesting and engaging. Once you get going, the narrative easily carries you along, and it can be easy to ignore everything else you’re doing and simply devour huge sections of the book. In fact I found myself enjoying the book much more when I was able to devote a serious chunk of time to reading it straight through, as opposed to having to pick it up and put it down.
Another aspect of the novel which works well is Ursula’s realization of the significance of her do-overs as they begin to deepen her insight into the events of her life and the lives of her family members. She experiences déjà vu and, occasionally a prescient dread which allows her to change the course of (some of) her histories and those of her family. This insight makes Ursula a fascinating character as she begins to be aware that there is more to life than the timeline she is currently in. It’s hard to say that I enjoyed Ms. Atkinson’s description of life in London during the Blitz or Berlin during the siege, but with large portions of the novel center on the war years in Europe, and Ursula’s participation in them Ms. Atkinson does a superb job of rendering detail without weighing down the forward momentum of the narrative.
Unfortunately, once this book tries to figure out what it all means, it gets a little muddled. Since Hitler is always a popular choice in the game of, “If you could go back in time and kill someone, who would you?” (I mean, it’s even in an episode of Doctor Who) it’s pretty clear that Ursula will make an attempt once she figures out that she’s possibly been given chance after chance in order to try to come back and make things right for Europe. It’s just not really obvious in the end whether the choice is what she’s meant to do. Because that isn’t where we end the book, we end it much where we started.
So, what is Ms. Atkinson trying to say with this work? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that it’s more about the small choices we make and not the large undertakings.