Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #20: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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On February 11, 1910 a blizzard snows in the house at Fox Corner, where Sylvie is giving birth to a baby girl, Ursula, who dies before she can take her first breath.

On February 11, 1910, a blizzard snows in the house at Fox Corner, and Dr. Fellowes makes it in the nick of time to deliver Sylvie’s healthy baby girl, Ursula.

This is how Ursula Todd’s life begins, a duality from the start. For Ursula, life and death, or death and life, are intertwined. Ursula suffers several deaths, and each time she dies she is reborn and able to change the course of events in her life. Some are happy, some are heartbreaking, some are lonely, but each one is richly detailed and riveting.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: anyone looking for a time traveling thriller should look elsewhere; this is Ursula’s story, where her ability to resurrect (one of which she is unaware of, she merely feels a commanding presence of déjà vu when she comes back) is part of the strange and complicated background of the Todd family. The family themselves are an odd and compelling bunch; Sylvie is prim and sometimes snobbish, Hugh is a loving, doting father. Ursula’s siblings Pammy, Maurice, Teddy, and Jimmy are as opposite as can be but each has their own place in family and Ursula’s life.

I purposely avoided reading any advanced reviews about this book because the premise was so unique, I thought it best to go in blind, and I’m glad I did. I think having no pre-conceived notions of what this book would be really helped the experience and I was sucked into Ursula’s surreal and ever-changing world. I was captivated by how different a person’s path can be (or how remarkably similar) by changing just a few details in life. I was rooting for Ursula and wanted only the best for her; sometimes she gets it, sometimes she doesn’t.

This book reminded me of a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book (maybe with a little Sliding Doors thrown in), but with more substance and depth.  I read (after I finished) reviews that complained that her rebirth bled out any narrative tension, but I disagree. In fact, I think it adds tension because the rules are never explained to us; it’s as much a mystery to us as it is to Ursula, and you never know if the next death Ursula experiences will be the final one.  I loved Atkinson’s writing; through Ursula she showed her love of literature and words, and that’s something I can get behind no matter what the subject matter.

There is one aspect of the book I didn’t really like, I do have to say. This isn’t really a spoiler, as the book opens with a chapter that strongly insinuates what adult Ursula is up to. But if, like me, you don’t want to be spoiled at all, go ahead and skip this paragraph.  So, moving forward with the part I really didn’t like: Ursula’s story is set against WWII, which is fine and great and I think it gave each member of the family an even greater depth. However, we learn in the first chapter that Ursula grows up and shoots Hitler. Yup, that Hitler. Atkinson does a fairly good job of paving a believable path to get to that point, but it just seems unnecessary. There are so many interesting characters and situations and backdrops that it kind of seems thrown in as a sensational afterthought. It plays a minor part, so it certainly doesn’t ruin the book, but I think leaving it out would have strengthened the book.

Overall, this was a fascinating book, one that kept me engrossed and wanting to know what happened next to the Todd family. I loved Atkinson’s writing and the characters she created and if you’re open to strange but interesting storylines, I would definitely recommend giving this one a go.

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