Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Transworld Publishers
A couple of years back I decided to read through the Whitcoulls Top 100 Books list. The same number of books in, I realised it was a big mistake – life is too short to waste time reading books you don’t want to read. Yes, each book that has made the Top 100 list has made it through some sort of merit, whether or not it deserves it, but reading a book is the sort of endeavour that you end up giving up a bit of yourself to. You recognise a character, you relate to an adventure; something about the world built from those pages of printed words resonates within you and, when you reach “THE END,” you know that you have given a part of yourself – your time, your life – to losing yourself inside an adventure that similarly has lent a part of itself to you.
Anyway, I didn’t feel that way about quite a few of the books on Whitcoulls’s list is what I’m trying to say.
However, this year I have decided to read through 20 books that made various critics’s lists in 2013, and I’m glad that I’ve chosen a list that is more comprehensively less controversial and possibly a little more elitist, because Life After Life made me feel like I had actually lost myself in an adventure that was pulling me along, and whilst reading it I forgot about my own reality for a little while. (Life After Life was not the first book I read off that list; that honour goes to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which is a massive book and a relative struggle to finish, and I doubt I will review that here but hope does spring eternal so let’s not say never.)
I haven’t really reviewed many books before but I suppose a quick summary would help. Life After Life is about a lady named Ursula Todd, who is born on a wintry stormy night in 1910. Shortly after being delivered, she dies.
But that’s not much of a book, so turn the page and once again Life After Life is about a lady named Ursula Todd, who is born on a wintry stormy night in 1910. Shortly after being delivered, she dies. But after a brief heart-stopping paragraph, she lives.
And now the story begins!
… Only for her to die again a couple of pages later.
And so on and so forth for the 500-odd pages of the book. I’ve come to think of it as a “choose your own adventure” as chosen by the author. Ursula lives, then dies of one thing, then is born again, then dies of another thing, and then in the next alternate universe lives and then dies of something else again. Sometimes she isn’t so lucky and doesn’t quite escape her previous fate. Eventually, after various stop-starts, she grows up and works in the midst of World War II in the London War Office, and eventually she realises that the sense of deja vu she’s had all her life is actually her living and dying countless times, and so she wonders… can I actually deliberately live to change something? Can I change something pivotal in the history of the world… can I kill Adolf Hitler?
Indeed, the preface of the entire book is Ursula, as a thirty-something year old woman, walking calmly up to Adolf Hitler’s inner circle and shooting him at point blank range.
DOES SHE SUCCEED? In our world, obviously not, but in the world of Life After Life… well, you’ll just have to read and find out.
Reading the book was exhausting, in a depressing way (because she kept dying and you could feel the dread that Ursula felt when the end was impending and inevitable) but at the same time so riveting because you wanted to know how Ursula cheated death this time around, if she even did at all. (She didn’t, and then she did.) But it is highly entertaining, and is uplifted by Kate Atkinson’s writing of Ursula and her family. Atkinson is, quite simply, hilarious and just really British is all I can think of to describe it. Her manner of describing the simplest of actions is just really amazing because it is succinct yet amusing. Sentences like these cracked me up despite the depression of the situation:
Mrs Appleyard’s “alas” seemed freighted with all the tragedy of a broken continent. It could harly bear the weight it was asked to carry.
Butter was plastered on to the roll with no regard for the hard labour of the cow.
“I’m in love,” she wrote rather deliriously to Pamela. “Hurrah,” Pamela wrote back.
I don’t know if you guys find these as funny as I do but I did. So there.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the book. It’s relatively lengthy but you won’t be able to stay away from it long enough for you to take too long to read.