Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I kept hearing about this book, ever since it was published in 2013. The (to me) science-fictional aspect of alternate lives intrigued me. And while some could argue it’s Groundhog Day in which one day is repeated (also, Tomorrow Never Dies), Life After Life covers much longer periods of time before a reset, making the effects of different lives more complicated.

Life After Life is set in the first half of the 20th century. I feel like a lot of fiction and media is zeroing in on the early 1900s these days. Downton Abbey is the big, obvious one, but also Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests (which I have to get back to), Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (at least part of it) and more. Of course, there has always been fiction during this time period, but it seems more visible. I can’t quite tell if it is getting more attention or if somehow my attention has been drawn to it.

The conceit of Life After Life is that there are different possibilities for the main character, Ursula, who could have died while being born, or drowned as a toddler, etc. The characterization is strong, the casual racism and classism can make one flinch, and the author’s observations fascinated me. I was most engaged by the family dynamics, especially when the family was young. The children each have well-defined personalities, Sylvie (Ursula’s mother) loves her children if not all equally, and there is some delicate exploration of character and relationships.

‘Everyone feels peculiar from time to time,’ Sylvie said. ‘Remember, dear—sunny thoughts.’

From p127 (of 475) of Life After Life. Ursula is eight years old, her many lives have begun to play a role, and she is a worry to her parents. Up till this chapter, I was reading the book as “straight” historical fiction, where the main character could have died, but we do a slight rewind and Ursula moves past the danger point with a shift in events (the doctor arrives to deliver her safely; a man rescues two little girls from the ocean).

But her multiple lives reach a point where they affect her perceptions and actions (there were hints of this before). The book very much remains historical fiction, with interesting shifts in time (I like books that play successfully with structure), but I’m glad the author actually grappled with the device she used.

I am reminded of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. In that there is a conceit (time travel, alternate lives), but the book doesn’t feel genre, and is very accessible to non-genre readers. (I have a lot of non-genre readers in my life who seem puzzled by my love for romance, science fiction and fantasy. Mystery gets a pass, of course.)

The characters are so well observed; it calls to mind The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, given both books are set in England and start just before WWI. (Although Hollinghurst, as much as I admire his writing, tends to be more cynical with his characters than I actually want him to be!)

There is a large focus on WWII and the Blitz in Ursula’s lives, and how she is damaged and never quite recovers from the war. And she has one life that is brutal and cut short and difficult to read. (It helped that I was just waiting to get back to a better life for Ursula—who I liked very much—it made for an interesting reading experience.)

I was impressed by this book, and moved at times, and I will be reading more by this author, be it her backlist, which includes a mystery series, or Life After Life‘s sequel, A God in Ruins.

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