I’m not sure if Life After Life fits in with the “pink cover” class of novels. I borrowed this novel, KOBO and all, from the friend who chose it for book club and I’ve viewed the cover, as such, in black and white. Pink cover or not, the cute fox and the light description my friend gave left me with an expectation of a fun read, something playful and within the realm of magic. From what I understood of the premise, I was expecting a romp like Groundhog Day. I don’t consider this a spoiler alert, just an alert for anyone else with similar misconceptions as me when I first “opened the cover”, but Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is wrenching. In retrospect, I’ve thought ofThe Time Traveller’s Wife with the hallmark non-linear experience of time and Pan’s Labyrinth and reminded myself that stories rich with mystic and magical elements are not necessarily free from serious and dark themes and moods.
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.
When I first heard about the concept behind the novel, I was intrigued. It sounded slightly similar to Replay to me, but in the case of Replay, the protagonist relives his life from certain points of time, and remembers everything every single time. Ursula, this novel’s main character, does not remember her past lives, and each time she dies, her life starts over from the beginning (sometimes the reader goes all the way back to the beginning with her, other times Atkinson only takes the reader to the relevant decision point in that life). While she does not remember her past lives, she does get bad feelings and develops a bit of deja vu that prevents her from making the same decisions. For example, one of her deaths is the result of her falling off a roof in pursuit of a toy tossed out the window. When she finds herself in the same scenario again, she looks out the window, gets a bit scared, and leaves the toy outside. She basically knows enough to avoid her life going the same way as before. In one instance, she is also portrayed as believing the rumors of Nazi Germany fairly early on – she has a sense of things or an inkling but no actual real factual knowledge that follows her from one life to the other.
Life After Life is the story–or rather, stories–of Ursula Todd. Ursula, it seems, cannot die. Her first life is over before it begins, as she dies before even taking her first breath. She is reborn moments later to the same family, in the same house, under the same circumstances. As she gets older, she dies and is reborn repeatedly, each new life taking her on a different path–some disastrous, some charmed–giving her a chance, each time, to do it over, to do it right. All that remains of her past lives, each time she is reborn, is a strong sense of déjà vu, a feeling that only grows stronger with time.
I’m on a roll with reading fantastic novels after a brief detour into nonfiction and a brief detour into some really boring books. Life After Life has a fascinating premise. This is the story of Ursula Todd’s life, or, more accurately, her many lives. Each time Ursula dies, she is reincarnated back into her own body, and generally lives a bit longer each time. Her powerful sense of de ja vu helps her slowly re-correct the course of her life until she finally completes the act she was destined to do.
What’s intrigued me most about the novel was figuring out which life was best for Ursula. In some of her lives, the tragedies that befall her or the way she dies is so painful, and she seems so unfulfilled, that you’re anxiously turning the pages until she dies, hoping for some relief from the life that has unfolded. In some lives, her relationships with her family suffer until she’s barely connected to them. In some, her friendships suffer. In some, she finds love, and romance, while in others she ends up alone.
Whichever life you choose depends on what your values are, I suppose. But in the end – you have to wonder the best life was the one in which she fulfills her destiny, or if she was happier when she was fulfilled in other ways. And most importantly, all of her lives feel real – she makes the choices available to a young woman living through WWI and WWI.
At over 500 pages, I expected to need the entirety of a week if not more to make it through this novel. It took me about 4 days, and would have taken less if family and work hadn’t interfered. It is truly a spellbinding novel about reincarnation, practice making perfect and going back to do it over until you get it right (if you can).
The story begins with Ursula Todd attempting to assassinate Hitler in 1930. She dies and returns to her birth in February 1911 at the family home in the English countryside. I didn’t keep count of how many times Ursula dies and reboots, but with each life/death cycle, she learns something to help her the next time around. She doesn’t exactly remember her past lives, but she experiences strong deja vu which impels her toward specific actions and away from certain dangers. Ursula’s life encompasses the two world wars and her choices in each life have implications for the lives of family and neighbors as well as herself. She transforms from a naive and somewhat dull witted Ursula to a sharp, focused and purpose-driven woman. A few of her lives were extraordinarily depressing and, now that I think of it, were lives in which she was married.
Among the constant members of her life circles are her parents and siblings, the maid and cook, her eccentric aunt Izzie and neighbors from her village. Despite the reincarnations, the family dynamics don’t really change. Father Hugh is a prosperous banker who fought in WWI, mother Sylvie married young and is still pained by the recollection of her own family’s losses, sister Pamela is a close friend while eldest brother Maurice is a pompous and aggressive lout, and younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy are loved, lovable and doted upon. Izzie’s circumstances change sometimes but her character does not. She is the free spirit who defies convention and annoys the rest of the family.
Another recurring character is Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist who treats Ursula when she is young. The reasons for this visit change depending on Ursula’s life — either she has engaged in an action that shocks her parents or she simply behaves strangely, showing signs of what the Irish maid calls a sixth sense. It is Kellet who introduces the concept of reincarnation to Ursula and seems to provide her with genuine help.
Atkinson’s writing is colorful and detailed, and despite the repetition of Ursula’s lives, never becomes boring or predictable. The description of life in London during the blitz is fascinating and terrifying. Ursula becomes involved in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and is on the scene when buildings have been reduced to rubble and bodies are being recovered — a horrifying and dangerous business.
… a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by these small reminders of domestic life … than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms.
I was completely engrossed by this novel. The idea of having a chance to “re do” and change history for the better is attractive. As Ursula tells Teddy, “We can never get it right, but we must try.”