In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson takes familiar themes of family and history and tells the many lives of Ursula Todd.
The novel begins at a stutter—how much can you write about a life that ends at the moment of its birth? The chapters expand as Ursula’s lives get longer and longer. This pulled me in right from the start—I was intrigued by these short, cryptic lives and abrupt deaths, all the while deepening the characters of Ursula and her family.
Ursula dies a lot. I did wonder if life is so precarious that it takes so many attempts to even make it to middle age. Fortunately, Atkinson doesn’t hit the reset button each time and take us back to her birth—most of Ursula’s lives start a couple of steps before her previous death and her new choices take her along a different path. This gave me the impression of the author having fun with her own plot choices and instead of planning one narrative and writing it from start to finish, she imagined ‘what if’ at different stages of the story and then incorporated all of these branches into the novel.
But these life resets (which the writer hints are partially recognised by Ursula—a sort of reincarnation déja vu) are not narcissistic methods of getting Ursula to a better life: they are variants of lives she would have had if she’d turned left instead of right. Despite her many lives, I never stopped rooting for her even though many of her choices in her previous lives were questionable—she, of course, never has the benefit of hindsight to correct her mistakes. The only time this didn’t quite work for me was when Ursula, working in Germany as an English teacher, makes friends with Eva Braun and ends up spending time at Hitler’s alpine hideout, Berchtesgaden. Despite this unbelievable set up, I did still find myself yelling at the curiously innocent and innocuous Braun—knowing, like everybody reading the book (but nobody in it) about her historical fate.
And the attention to detail… I read an interview with Atkinson in which she described the scale of historical research that went into Life After Life. Each sentence, especially in the wartime chapters, just drips with precise description that puts you right there. And isn’t that a hallmark of a great writer to be able to do that?