Category: Fiction/Historical – Hardcover: 471 pages – Publisher: Random House – Imprint: Doubleday – Source: Proof copy from publishers
First Published: March 2013
Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013
Life After Life is a slow burner – but one that is definitely worth your attention. It’s also guaranteed to be one of the most extraordinary books you’ll read this year…
At its heart is Ursula, a woman who is trapped in an constantly learning to outwit fatal pitfalls in her life.
On the day she is born, 11th February 1910, it snows heavily. In the first version of her story she dies moments after birth, before the doctor can get to her. In the second she’s born a little earlier and the doctor arrives just in the nick of time. It sets both Ursula and the reader off on a harsh learning curve. In these early years she dies several times in quick succession as she makes silly mistakes or fails to understand the danger she’s in. The reader is shocked to see her fragile childhood missteps cut short these first tentative attempts at life, each death returning both you and Ursula to the day she was born.
As Ursula grows though the chapters get longer. She observes more about her family, learns more about consequences and begins to sidestep obvious traps. She learns to trust the growing sense of deja vu around key moments and as she starts to successfully navigate the earlier, simpler challenges she is faced with more complex conundrums.
One in particular, how do you prevent someone loved by the family from visiting and bringing the influenza pandemic with them?, stumps her for a while and she only moves past it when she has tried several rather desperate solutions.
By the time Ursula is sixteen the choices are much bigger and so are the consequences. My favourite scene(s) is a small one which is replayed several times. It happens the summer Ursula is sixteen, in 1926. She is in the garden with her mother, arguing about what she will do when September rolls around. Everything about the scene is slightly different in each version – the book she’s reading (French classic, German classic, Pitman shorthand manual etc), the way she feels about her future, her attitude to love and the decisions she makes. The only thing that stays the same is her mother’s brittle personality and her attempts to criticise… some things apparently have nothing to do with fate.
These decisions lead us through to the second half of book and the more detailed, harder-to-assess adult lives Ursula might have lived. In one she is an abused wife, in another she’s an indifferent mistress, in another she’s determinedly single. Sometimes she meets Eva in Germany, sometimes she doesn’t. When she stays in Blitz-torn London she finds a dozen ways to live, love and, inevitably, die. When she goes to Germany she finds herself caught up in deadly politics.
It’s this second half of the book where Atkinson shows her strength as a writer. The first hundred pages are a slower start than you might expect, promising a great pay off if you slowly unwrap the layers and get to know the characters of Ursula’s family and get a feel for their world. In the same way that snowflakes build avalanches though, it’s the second half where the pace picks up and the reader gets sucked in. We see characters we’ve come to understand cope with love and loss, hope and fear. We also see them deal with refugees turning up on the doorstep, bickering about dinner and rushing to a neighbour’s aid. Over and over we are gently, and sometimes brutally, reminded that nothing should be taken for granted.
The London-based lives make up the majority of Ursula’s possibilities but there are also a number of sequences that see her in Germany and one which sees her attempting to assassinate Hitler (I’m not spoiling anything, it’s in the first two or three pages). I’m never keen on the would-you-kill-Hitler trope so it shouldn’t be seen as too harsh a criticism that I didn’t like it here. That said, it’s offered as a possible future quest rather than an ending in the traditional sense and, since Atkinson offers a choice of lives Ursula might have lived in Germany, it’s not as if it came out of nowhere. I suspect other readers might feel it’s a little gimmicky or has been tacked on but, to be honest, Atkinson is spinning so many plates here with aplomb that I didn’t mind accepting it as a possibility.
Throughout the book Atkinson offers no easy suggestions about why Ursula keeps coming back, keeping any thoughts about religion and destiny carefully to herself. It leaves the logic of the book’s world flexible and while some may prefer all their loose ends tied off, I didn’t mind there being no over-arching theory behind Ursula’s possible lives and no defined ‘goal’ for her to aim for. Indeed, in the scramble of so many decisions and events being made in WWII who knows if she’ll ever work through all the possibilities!
In conclusion, this is an unusual and strangely haunting read, well worth braving the hype I expect it to generate for. Atkinson’s scenes in World War Two London are extraordinarily vivid and hit the perfect note between history and storytelling, there’s good drama throughout (especially in the later stages where you feel you know the characters) and it’ll keep you thinking about Ursula’s options and choices long after you close the final page. It’s not flawless but very, very enjoyably human.
Rating: 8/10 (Book Review Scale)
Buy: Hardback or Kindle