‘Life After Life’ Review

Life After Life is considered by many to be Kate Atkinson’s best novel so far. Others see it as one of the best English novels that have been published since 2013. That’s high praise that may cause suspicion in some cases, but in this instance, there are some really good reasons to praise Atkinson’s work.

It is an imaginative tale that skillfully manages to explore the possibilities of alternate realities, something that many storytellers have explored but never managed to fully embrace.

Life After Life After Life…

The novel is about Ursula Todd. She was born on February 11, 1910, to an affluent family. That’s the only definite thing that you will get about her life story, because it will stop and restart at the same point, sometimes it will take the same route, sometimes not, which is the genius behind the book.

Sometimes, the change in her life is minimal, but sometimes it is quite profound. On the first version of Ursula’s life, she would be strangled by her umbilical cord and so would be stillborn. During the next versions, she would make it to the next “ stage” of her life. There are several versions where she would die as a child. In one she would drown in the sea. In another, she gets saved from drawing, only to get killed by fall when she tries to retrieve a doll in the roof.

She falls victim several times to the Spanish flu of 1918. It was during her fourth try at living through the flu. Whenever a “version”  ends with her death, it comes about with variation of the idea that death comes as a form of darkness.  Each new version also begins with the whiteness brought about by the heavy snowfall during her birth.

Ursula has within her a sense that she is living her life over and over again. It’s not like with Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, who carries a full knowledge of each version of the day during which he is trapped. That knowledge is the curse for Murray’s character since he knows that he is trapped. In the case of Ursula however, she only gets a vague feeling of knowing, which is kind of unsettling.

She does not have direct knowledge about what will happen to her but her feeling that something will happen drives her to take certain actions. For example, she pushes a maid down the stairs to avoid something more terrible. That action landed her in the office of a psychiatrist. It was there that she was introduced to ideas that could help her to deal with the vague unease that she has which tells her that she has lived her life before. Those concepts are reincarnation and that of amor fati, which is the acceptance that her life could not have turned any other way.

In later lives, she would fall victim to a rapist and then be trapped in an unhappy marriage with a very vile person. She would be killed by her husband when she tries to escape him. In her later lives, she would learn how she can escape such an unhappy life by being aggressive to the sexual abuser. 

Ursula also manages to save another girl, from being raped and killed, the girl, named Nancy is her neighbor and she would play an important role in her life as she would develop a relationship with her brother. Incidentally, Nancy also becomes a major character in the sequel of the book.

Lives During the War

As she weaves through the different versions of her life, Ursula finds herself in the middle of the Second World War. She goes through the War through several lives and she works in the War Office in London. She has to live through the results of the Blitz. She would live through several versions of her life where she would see the bombing of a bomb shelter in Argyll Road in November 1940.

In some of her lives, she would be one of the victims of the bombing in the bomb shelter while on others, she would be one of the rescuers. There was a life where she was able to marry a German in 1934. Because of that, she was unable to return to England throughout the the war. During that life, she would experience the Allied bombing on the business end as she would be living in Berlin while it was attacked by the Allies from the sky.

Then, Ursula would get a particularly strong sense that she has lived through past lives before. It was then that she realized she can prevent the carnage of World War Two from happening. Using the leftover memories that she has from her past lives, she realized that she can prevent the carnage of the war from happening by killing Adolf Hitler.

That might sound like the wish-fulfillment of a lot of people who dream of traveling back in time to kill Hitler, but Atkinson was able to pull it off and she writes a convincing tale of what might have been during this part of the novel. With her knowledge from previous lives, she befriends Eva Braun in 1930 who back then was working as a shop-girl in Munich. 

Using her friendship with Braun, Ursula manages to get close to Hitler, who was just starting to get some national prominence with the plan to shoot him with her father’s service pistol. She manages to get close to Hitler but she was unable to carry out her plan and would pay the ultimate price since she was killed for her attempt.

It is not known if her actions got the results that she was hoping for because the scenes would follow her consciousness. So if she dies in a particular life, that one closes out for the readers as well, as the “darkness” takes over. Readers are left to wonder if her action actually prevented the war or if it only changes the leader of the Nazi party but they still manage to take over and bring about the global conflict.

Interestingly enough, that “life”  actually was the first one that readers read in the novel. It served as the prologue for the book. 

A Fascinating Look

Admittedly, there are some instances in the book when the readers would really have to suspend their disbelief, particularly in the parts when she deals with Hitler, but it is so well-written than one would be willing to go on for a ride.

The novel explores a question that is often tackled in science-fiction and alternate timeline stories, but rarely in a serious work of fiction. That question is what would happen if one can go back with the knowledge of what would happen in life. The answer is a fascinating work that shows the effect of having that knowledge.

What’s interesting is that Atkinson chose a comparatively simple protagonist in choosing to explore the possibilities. Instead of choosing some high-profile setting for her “ what might have been”  tales, she picked a rather ordinary person to be her central character.  In some ways that is what makes the novel so interesting. But then again, it might just be Atkinson’s skill in writing that makes the novel so good.

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