Life After Life has been on our bookshelf since it was published. My lovely sister-in-law bought us a signed first edition, and I’m notoriously destructive as a reader – dog eared pages, thumb prints, spilt coffee!! So I didn’t want to spoil it. I even considered buying a pristine paper back version I could read with impunity – but in the end I gave in and read it anyway.
I enjoyed Life After Life though it’s a book some people would find odd. You have to have an open mind to read a novel that keeps restarting, giving its heroine a new beginning every few pages, whenever she dies – which she frequently does!!
Atkinson intrigues us by opening the book with a short scene in which Hitler is gunned down in 1930 at his mountain retreat by a young English girl called Ursula. As the chapter ends – darkness fell – we realise she too has died at the hands of his body guards. Atkinson then takes us back to the beginning – 1910 and the year of Ursula’s birth. We witness several restarts in the years running up to and beyond WW1 as Ursula catches ‘flu, or falls off a roof – or whatever – darkness fell. It’s a testimony to Atkinson’s cleverness that, despite all these false starts, the retellings remain vivid and interesting. Having said that, it does require a very ready ability to suspend belief, and some patience, not to become annoyed at reading once more about her birth, the servants, the snow, her family.
After the opening sections I found this odd presentation less annoying – possibly because the narrative sections are longer and take you further – the early deaths press quickly against each other so a few pages is all you get before the next.
Ursula’s story spans most of the twentieth century. Each life is the product of different choices she makes – or choices that are made for her: marriage, a student year in Germany, raped by one of her older brother’s university friends, or married to a weak and bullying husband. In the end we see quite a few different lives, lived by the same person.
I suppose that’s what the book’s really about – the choices we make, the regrets we may have, the way we affect and interact with others, chance, fate, destiny. Throughout Ursula is independent and spirited – a fresh modern heroine – and the book is filled with compassion and family love. I’d recommend it – if you can stomach the very odd narrative structure.