Last evening I finished Kate Atkinson's newest novel, LIFE AFTER LIFE, after two days straight of doing little else but reading it compulsively. I felt so utterly besotted by every 527 pages of it, that rather than close the book and put it on my bookshelf, I returned to the first pages and began reading the book all over again. Oh, what an extraordinary reading experience it is!
The cover blurb provides a fair plot summary of the novel and I am sure other reviewers will rehash it over and over again as well, so I will spare you a plot summary here. Rather I want to remark on what makes this novel so brilliant for me - and it is not only the deep underlying philosophical and religious themes which will surely open wide this book to many interpretations - but its beautiful characters who break all stereotypes and its structure which is a masterpiece of narrative architecture.
Yes, many themes do permeate the story of Ursula Todd - everything from Plato's "Everything changes and nothing remains still," Buddhist principles of fate and reincarnation, Nietzsche's "amor fati" (Love of Fate), to Jungian explanations of "déjà vu," "synchronicity" and "collective unconsciousness," and that's just to name a few - but what really makes this novel stand out, what really makes it so amazing is how lightly, even unassumingly, and yet so impeccably Kate Atkinson treats such sophisticated and intellectual subject matter.
LIFE AFTER LIFE is the enthralling story of Ursula Todd, born to Hugh and Sylvie Todd in their home at Fox Corner, England on a bitterly cold, snowy night in February 1910. Ursula Todd also died on that very night before she could even draw her first breath. But her story does not end there - her death is not an ending but a new beginning, a beginning to another chance at life. And so it goes in Ursula's story of life after many deaths - a loop of lives so to speak, or the continuous circle of destiny, the karmic wheel of fate... life after life, after life.
Early in the novel we recognize Ursula as an "old soul" and in Kate Atkinson's strategy for telling the story of Ursula's multiple lives and deaths, the narrative progression through history will certainly resonant with readers familiar with the themes of déjà vu and reincarnation. Actually, I think every reader will be able to find resonance with this terrifically engaging narrative, regardless of the philosophical or religious subtexts. It is the intricate plotting through actual historical events which takes on an excitingly different cast - not the usual suspense of "What happens next?" but, to quote Ursula's brother Teddy; "What if you had the chance to do it again and again, until you finally got it right? Would you do it?"
This is a superb narrative tactic which leaves out the typically heavy handed authorial exposition of ordinary historical fiction and challenges us, the readers, while reflecting on Ursula's infinite lives, to discover and piece together for ourselves the puzzle of the social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual dynamics that governs all human experience and history.
Ursula is truly a remarkable character of depth whom we take interest in for her own sake as an individual and not for anything she might symbolize as a literary heroine. We are able to connect with her viscerally (and we do many times over). The other primary characters who populate her story are no less remarkable than she. Her family, her friends, her lovers, and even her Zen master-like psychiatrist are all highly believable individuals with whom we can easily identify.
LIFE AFTER LIFE is crafted impeccably with a language rich in stunning metaphors and poetic imagery. Its abundant literary allusions work well in the service of the emotions. At the same time the narrative manages to be unpretentiously intelligent, effortlessly witty, and deeply touching. Each episode in the many lives of Ursula produces an intense and lasting effect for the reader. They are tales of tenderness and poignancy, horror and outrage, pity and fear, laughter and jubilance, sorrow and grief. Few novels succeed in accomplishing as much.
Oh, my dear reading friends, how truly marvelous Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE is! Read this novel, please! I promise you that once you begin reading this book you too will find it difficult to put it down. And once you read it through to the last pages, I'm sure you too will want to turn back to its first pages to rethink the whole novel through again. To be sure, this is a masterpiece which deserves to be read again and again.
This is a tricky book to review: easy to enjoy, but curiously empty. Its five hundred pages flew by like the wind; this is the kind of writing I have been reading since childhood, literary comfort food. As a British expatriate, it feels very close to home: these are my kind of people leading lives I understand, if not always in actuality then at least from books. I felt it was all rather vapid at first, but I became increasingly impressed with Atkinson's ingenuity as I read on; a veteran puzzler myself, I raise my hat to anyone who can do something this clever. But to what end? I look to a novel of this scale to do more than merely keep me amused. Yet there was never a time in the book when I felt truly touched or even much surprised. The total, I felt, was less than the sum of its many parts. Much less.
But I had better explain. Atkinson's conceit here is that her heroine, Ursula Todd, is immune from death, at least in a literary sense. If she dies at the end of one chapter, the author simply winds back the clock and starts again. So in the earliest chapter, dated February 1910, a baby is born with the cord twisted around her neck, dead. In the next, the scene is repeated, but the doctor makes it through the snow in time, and the child is saved. Some chapters later, however, a cat settles in the baby's cradle, smothering her. And so on. It is like a maze; if you come to a dead end, you retrace your steps a little and try a different route.
The plethora of short chapters and frequent restarts soon became tedious. But then the novel opened out in the interwar years and especially in some gripping scenes set in the London Blitz, as we spent more time with Ursula as a young woman and adult. Atkinson builds up a very full life (or lives) for her, with a rich family structure (three brothers, a sister, and a black-sheep aunt), a career in the civil service, and a variety of romantic entanglements that appear or vanish in the various incarnations. The structure now seems to be less a maze than a set of overlapping transparencies, different stories happening in different layers, with a few common elements drilled down through them. But you begin to suspect that there will be no one definitive version; these are all possible directions in which the author can develop a relatively simple series of facts, trying one thing and then the other, and never having to choose among them. In this sense, it is a kind of allegory of the writing process: this is what a novelist can do; isn't it exciting? Intermittently yes, but ultimately self-indulgent.
Fiction, to engage me, must involve me with its characters and make me care about their fates. I certainly liked Ursula; but once I realized that any setbacks in her life would immediately be replaced by another version, it became difficult to care about her. But I admit to being amazed how often Atkinson could draw me back in. In the latter half of the book there are half-a-dozen versions of the near-destruction of a London street, involving Ursula variously as an Air Raid Warden, or a victim trapped in a cellar, or the brave rescuer of a frightened dog. Almost any one of these, in a straight novel of the 1950s, would have been a tear-jerker; you can see the film treatment written all over them. But their plurality reminds you that they are mere artifacts; you may be impressed, but you also know you are being manipulated.
In addition to reserving the right to present multiple versions of Ursula's story, Atkinson gives her a dim sense of her own multiplicity. She is subject to déjà vu, which is understandable and effective. She is occasionally frightened by a faint awareness of something happening in a parallel life. And to some extent she can see the future. It is this last that gives me the most trouble, because Atkinson uses it as a thread linking prologue and epilogue with a number of scenes set in Germany between the wars. It is a relatively minor thread, and much less interesting than Ursula's life in London, but I suspect the author intends it as a serious armature around which the other stories can be gathered. If so, it fails; the what-ifs of history pale beside the real thing.
I couldn't shake the impression that Atkinson was practising the art of recycling, not just the various repeated episodes within the complex story, but also the styles and tropes of an earlier type of fiction. What I referred to as "comfort food" is the style I associate with the romantic novel of sixty years ago. Here, for example, are Ursula's parents discussing what to call the house they will eventually christen Fox Corner: '"We should give the house a name," Hugh said. "The Laurels, the Pines, the Elms." "But we have none of those in the garden," Sylvie pointed out. [...] "Greenacres, Fairview, Sunnymead?" Hugh offered, putting his arm around his bride.' It's an affectionate parody of nice middle-class people saying amusing things to one another, and the vaguely comic tone continues for some time thereafter, in knowing little parentheses and clever comments. Atkinson has used this tone before in her first novel, BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM, to devastating effect as the comedy suddenly turns serious. But there is no devastation here. Although the tone does become more serious towards the middle of the book, there is always that knowing detachment to undercut the emotional impact. Fun to read (4.5 stars), but ultimately so trivial (3).
POSTSCRIPT: Is it a recent trend of British writers to recycle the styles of popular novels to postmodern effect? Especially writing about one or other of the World Wars. The most recent example was SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan, who starts in almost a parody of the "plucky girl gets involved in important war work" genre, but uses it for his own clever ends. The war story is only one genre used by Sebastian Faulks in A POSSIBLE LIFE, but his whole book depends upon the recasting of established narrative types. I suppose this goes back to David Mitchell in CLOUD ATLAS (2004), although he so transcends his borrowed forms as to make them something new. But even relatively straight books about this period seemingly cannot help borrowing the romance-adventure style that goes with it. Simon Mawer, in TRAPEZE, cannot seem to decide between the plucky-girl romance and realism. William Boyd in WAITING FOR SUNRISE writes a saga of similar scope to Atkinson's, where the various tropes float just below the surface, giving a surely-deliberate sense of role-playing. Alan Hollinghurst covers exactly the same period as Atkinson in THE STRANGER'S CHILD, playing a clever game with literary expectations throughout -- but the novel is held together by his own superb sense of style, and there is nothing recycled about that. Then, finally, there is Penelope Lively, who has long been writing clever books about unexpected consequences in the lives of middle-class people, though her contrivances are all of the traditional variety; no post-modernism with her!
on June 5, 2013
I think Atkinson's novel, Behind The Scenes at the Museum, is one of the finest novel's I've read. I also liked Human Croquet.
So I was excited to see this book had come out and bought the hard cover.
It is clearly a book written by a novelist at the peak of her art: the writing is sure and often lush, she knows when to stop, when to move on. You certainly feel you are in the hands of a pro. THe voice is sure and often funny, with a wry intelligent humor.
She vividly brought the past to life especially the WWII era,particularly in the recurring scene of the bombed out house she either dies in or observes, depending on her life.
Some parts of the book were very powerful, again the above scenes - I have never quite felt the daily terror of London during the Blitz as I did here.
The philosophical question is interesting--both the 'what if' and the entire concept of time and the meaning of our life/lives.
I'll address these in no order especially.
The biggest con is that though the philosophical question is interesting, it feels ultimately to be an exercise in philosophy - and a not very deep one - as opposed to a novel justifying so many pages. It's something that perhaps would feel profound if you were in a college dorm late at night drinking and chatting, and had just discovered Plato and Nietsche. "Oh wow, like maybe time isn't linear or circular!" "Wow, I mean what if you could live your life again and again? I mean, maybe our lives are both fate *and* luck, both ephemeral *and* eternal! Oh wow. Hey, pass me the wine."
A few little things: It was very annoying how many characters commented on Ursula's intelligence and brilliance. I stopped counting after a while. I also don't see the point. She is really smart. So?
The rape scene bothered me extremely--not that scene, but the way Ursula 'solves' it by punching this huge guy. Um, so if only 16 year old petite rape victims were plucky and full of gumption, they wouldn't be raped?
Also, the creepy stranger who rapes and murders Nancy is preposterous. Talk about a silly stereotype. I kept waiting for this to be more complex, some person they all knew, some plot twist, but no. He is a creepy bum.
And the only time Ursula falls prey to her abusive husband who murders her (Mr Oliphaunt) is when she was raped as a 16 year old. So because she didn't punch her rapist, she got raped, and then her entire personality changes, she marries an abuser, and in a disturbing way, she is therefore at fault for being abused and murdered. Somehow, I don't see abusive marriages as being that simple.
But the sad part was by this time, I didn't really care--I was beginning to see that when Ursula died, it would be a 'lesson' for her to not repeat that mistake again. It's as though the other characters are mere props for the Education Of Ursula in her Journey Through Neverending Time.
This segues into an overall major flaw of the book, and that is despite the fact that we visit the same characters over and over, in the end we learn very little about them. They remain undeveloped and rather shallow. When Hugh dies, I don't feel as tragically sad as Ursula or anyone--I don't really know him. He is this amiable man and good father and husband. That's really it. Sylvie seems to become inexplicably a b**** as she gets older, just as Hugh develops his sainthood. We start in Sylvie's point of view but then never go back into it, and she becomes less and less sympathetic and shallow as the novel goes on, from her horrific treatment of Ursula after the rape, to the disgusting way she keeps harping at Izzie for having given up her baby for adoption at 16 (!), to her hatred for her oldest son, to her traditional 'nagging' of her genial husband, and so on. She is merely a caricature of an unhappy woman and semi-bad, semi-good mother and wife. I never really understood her, nor Hugh.
Many characters fare worse. We were all supposed to adore Teddy but he never did anything particularly likable to make *me* like him (or hate him). In fact, another annoying thing is that everyone reacts the same way to everyone else: everyone loves Teddy. The oldest, Maurice, is likewise despised by his entire family--we were just all expected to hate him, but no real reason is ever given other than he is labeled 'bad.' Everyone loves Hugh except Sylvie (who is wrong for that). This is just not how people are. I don't know anyone who is reacted to identically by everyone.
Indeed, most characters were actually labels (and static ones at that) rather than human beings. People didn't develop or change; they were one thing as a child, and that was that. Each character could for all means and purposes wear a tag that describes them: "Izzie, the eccentric but loving aunt," "Maurice, the hateful oldest brother," "Teddy, the wonderful beloved brother, "Hugh, the great dad" and so on.
There were several times, especially when I started the German section, that I lost interest and actually leafed forward to see when the next death would take place so I'd know when I'd be done with that section. I felt a few times that I could have abandoned the book without missing much. I persevered though, sometimes grimly, sometimes with a mild interest in how the puzzle would play out this time.
I'll end with a question: What was the point of all the animal imagery: bear, fox, wolf and elephant? Hitler is a wolf, she is both a fox (Todd, Fox Corner) and a bear (Ursula, with her brother Teddy), and so on. Other than cleverness, I mean.
Overall, this book is worth reading because it does depict historical events extremely vividly and because the philosophical question is interesting and much of the writing is well done. But I wish it were deeper; it both tries too hard and not hard enough (how's that for a paradox?).
First time ever reading a book and then immediately going back to read it again. At first, my goal in re-reading was to catch the parts I may have missed. But a few pages in, and there I was hooked again. Atkinson has performed the remarkable and enviable feat of capturing a world among many worlds, many lives among one, giving us simultaneously an eye into the mind of a girl and a bird's eye view of the larger themes she inhabits, over and over and over again. The hook is short chapters that get ever longer and deeper as we learn about and get attached to the characters and a sort of child-like rhyme and repetition: "Needs must" "the black bat descends" "and so on". The repetition is what gets you turning the pages and not thinking too hard and just being entertained by the most nimble and tightest writing ever. But think, you will. It won't be the intellectual work of some grand literary all-encompassing tome. There are very few of those $5 words sprinkled about, and Atkinson has this skill of condensing ideas, miraculously putting in parenthetical asides what in any other writer's hands would take paragraphs to convey. Tight, nimble, economical writing, but still delving as deep as you desire....you will be intellectually engaged before you know it, thinking, oh, about minor issues like life and death. How we, each one of us, really does ask to be born (despite the common teen lament to his/her seemingly clueless parent "I didn't ask to be born!") Ursula asks to be born, and she does so again and again. And in between these lives we see her through the warm and fuzzy outlines of a loving family, a father who adores her, a mother who at least likes her, a ditzy but loyal go-to aunt, a sister, different from her, but still her best friend, an older brother who seemingly severed himself from their lives the day he was born, but still keeps coming back to make trouble, and two younger brothers, Jimmy, a bit of an enigma, and Teddy, who may be the purest embodiment of sibling love ever written and the character who the author most likes to speak through. The author and structure are not invisible here, nor are they obtrusive to the riveting story taking us from Ursula living through the most awful of events in the safest of places (wisteria wall-papered stairwell in the cozy confines of Fox Corner), to another Ursula-life in the most awful of places (WW II Germany) doing the best work she can, parenting a child, helping the wounded.
What the world allowed to happen in Germany and the London Blitz are settings visited again and again in literature. That time in our history is a seemingly endless fount of story. And Atkinson uses the setting well, showing us some of the same imagery we've seen before: the Jewish neighbor the proper English don't know what to make of, the buildings hollowed out but for staircases that remain standing like fossils, buildings with their faces blown off so they look like dollhouses. Atkinson gives us this imagery beautifully and our eyes well up at it all, again. The over-arching trope, the one little hiccup in history that could have changed the world forever, the one action (maybe) taken by Ursula at the beginning and the end, is also a similar one. But it's not really important to know whether she did that crucial deed or not. What is important to know is that she LIVED, and saw, and absorbed all the pain, all the joy, of all the worlds and times she inhabited. Sure, it's fine to wonder, if you could go back in time, what would you change and how, but I didn't think this idea the central one of the book (although it may very well be). The central idea, the take away for me, was more mundane: this novel is about living and managing and coping and being weak sometimes and being unbelievably heroic other times and doing the best you can with what you've got, over and over and over again. I would read this novel over and over again just to live that beautifully simple idea over and over again.
on March 18, 2013
Life After Life is an extraordinary, elegant novel of fate, love and redemption. Though initially I struggled to make sense of Atkinson's structure I was quickly captivated by this unique novel.
Set during the first half of the 20th century in Britain, against the backdrop of enormous social and political change, fate twists capriciously for one girl born on a snowy evening in February, 1910.
For Ursula Todd, death is not the end, instead it is the beginning, another chance to get it right. Ursula does not remember her previous lives but instead is driven by a distorted echo that compels her to to sidestep the events that previously led to her demise. In one instance it takes several incarnations, and determined action, before Ursula is able to avoid succumbing to influenza. In another, significant change is effected simply by protesting against the unwanted attentions of a family friend. Details matter, a seemingly innocuous decision can lead to tragedy for herself or her loved ones, or avert it.
Ursula becomes many things, a secretary, a mistress, a battered wife, an air raid warden, a mother but she remains recognisably Ursula. That the string of fates Ursula experiences are wholly possible for a girl born into the genteel middle class in 1910, is what ensures the credibility of the story.
I am in awe that the author is able to so deftly manipulate the construct of time and reality without the concept falling into a muddled farce. Though it does help to pay close attention to the dates that head each chapter, the narrative moves smoothly between one timeline and another and becomes easier to follow as you gain familiarity with the structure.
Beautifully crafted, Life After Life is so much more than what the blurb promises, or than I can articulate. I found it a compelling, thought provoking and extraordinary tale.
on July 24, 2013
I selected this book as somewhat of a novelty. Another book by a different author with the same title was released on the same day. That's an unusual event in the publishing world. I felt it only fair if I was reading one to also read the other. I loved Life After Life by Jill McCorkle and posted a review of it earlier. I didn't enjoy Life After Life by Kate Atkinson quite so much.
Ursula Todd is born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The midwife is stopped at the local pub due to a driving snowstorm and unable to make it to Sylvie Todd's bedside. Each time we think the worst has happened to this baby, the author rewinds the tape, leading the reader down a different path where the doctor does make it through the snow, or the servant uses the kitchen shears to cut the cord to give Ursula another chance at life.
At pivotal points in a young girl's life, Ursula's choices are simply undone and her path reset to something different. The new path didn't necessarily lead Ursula to a better place, only a different one. Each turn became more tedious than the last. As a reader I often found myself lost and confused as to where I was supposed to be in the story. There was an awful lot of rehashing of the same conversations and events. Boring!
I think this is an interesting concept for a story, however I began to feel like it was Groundhog Day, repeating itself over and over again. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if Ursula had been a likeable character, but she wasn't. Maybe if her mother, brothers and sister had been more appealing I would have enjoyed the book, but they weren't. I'm not one to stop reading once I start, but I'll admit I skipped alot of the middle hoping the end would bring redemption. Unfortunately, it didn't.
on July 21, 2015
An author may enjoy playing with ideas of reincarnation or parallel universes, or confusing overlapping universes, but the experience for the reader is much like The Funhouse of Mirrors, where everything warps and stretches every time you move. Ok, so Ursula comes back after each death. But so do Bridget, and Clarence, and Hugh. She's raped--no, she's a virgin. Why is she trying to assassinate Hitler? Was Sylvie really unfaithful to Hugh? Nothing matters because it shifts before your eyes. Nothing's real. Very unsatisfactory.
on January 24, 2014
I don't know if it's just me, but I am so done with the formula must-reads from the big publishers these days. I picked up this whale of a read and found myself
gulping and gasping for air as I was taken out to sea in so much excessive prose, I needed rescuing, and fast. Actually, a tugboat would've done the job.
What is going on? I kept seeing all this praise on this read about one life connecting to another--but I just did not get it. I kept reading, hoping the story would turn. It didn't happen. Pages and pages of dull, lifeless, predictable prose.
on January 19, 2014
I struggled to finish this book.
I couldn't work out whether the Author had one book in mind but couldn't work out which path to take with it or was she trying to be clever in a way that missed my comprehension.
Did Ursula die at birth and none of her lives exist?
I got quite fed up with trying to work out what year we were in and who died or didn't die.
On a positive note, I thought that the characters were believable and if the Author had stuck to one story line I think I would have enjoyed the book immensely.
I could really imagine the setting at Fox Corner and the family dynamics. The bombing of London really drew me in and I could almost feel it. I thought the portrayal of Izzie was great for the time and place.
on March 28, 2013
In a notable departure, British novelist Kate Atkinson brings her literary gifts to the world of speculative fiction. In her new stand alone, Life After Life, heroine Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. Beginning on the day of her birth, a snowy February day in 1910, the baby is "dead before she had a chance to live." Except, in the very next chapter, we again witness Ursula's birth and she isn't choked by the umbilical cord. But she does succumb to another fate at the age of four.
And so it goes, living, exploring, experimenting, trying to get it right. It takes readers a while to actually meet the adult incarnation of Ursula Todd. There were so many dangers, so many wrong paths along the way. After a while, I'm afraid, it became just a bit like, "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!" I don't mean to be flippant, but this little girl died a lot of different ways. Any emotional intensity is severely muted through sheer repetition, and the knowledge that there are no real consequences. It will all begin again.
Which is not to say that there are no effects. Ursula seems to sense echoes of her past lives, sometimes even taking extreme measures to avert past disasters. Ms. Atkinson was rather brilliant in how she seeded these shadows of lives past throughout the novel and Ursula's consciousness. Other reviewers have written eloquently on Buddhist philosophy, Jung's Collective Unconscious, and many other sophisticated influences on Ms. Atkinson's story. But one reader's religion is another reader's science. I, for instance, might go on about the physics of multiverses. "She had felt pleased with herself for resisting a yellow crêpe de Chine tea dress..." But in another lifetime, "She tried on the yellow crêpe de Chine tea dress she'd bought earlier that day..."
Buy the dress, don't buy the dress. It's one of a million--a billion--details that determine the outcome of our lives. As we watch Ursula live life after life, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less, we begin to determine the pivotal days, the ones that simply need to be survived. And we begin to see the cascading effect of small changes. We become very intimately acquainted with Ursula and the people that surround her.
Now, this premise is nothing new. From Bill Murray in Groundhog Day to Ken Grimwood's cult classic, Replay, this has been done before. It may be my imagination, but I feel like I'm seeing more of this sort of tale lately. Variations on the time travel theme. What Atkinson brings to the table is her skill as a writer, and the deadly seriousness with which she carries out her tale. For it is unfolding not in contemporary America, but 20th century England. Intellectually I know the history, but living war after war after war through Ursula's eyes was brutal. Born in 1910, the girl saw some history, and it's very clear that Atkinson did her research. The novel lingers longest during WWII, with Ursula experiencing the war from multiple vantages, all of them fairly brutal. War is hell. Didn't someone say that once? As a reader, I began to feel brutalized, trapped in an endless war that went on for (surely) hundreds of pages. There seemed to be no exit. What is the point of all these lives? That is the question. A big question with major philosophical implications.
Atkinson does give answers, of a sort, though there's plenty open for interpretation. This book is great fodder for those who want to delve into these mysteries, and for those who want to discuss them with others. It is well written, thought-provoking, and compelling. I enjoyed it, and am glad to have read it, but while I'm usually the most enthusiastic reader and the loudest in my praise, I can't seem to embrace this one as whole-heartedly as many readers have. I liked it. It was good, layered, well-written, brilliantly-plotted, etc. etc. But it's grim. Atkinson covers a bloody period of history, and even without the wars, the body count is staggering. I didn't actually count how many times or different ways that Ursula dies, but it's a lot. And, frankly, even when she's living, it isn't all that joyful. This is an undeniably excellent novel, but I'm glad to have finally reached the end of the line. It's time for me to move on.