Life After Life
Little, Brown and Company
Release Date: March 14, 2013
On a cold, snowy English night in 1910, a stillborn baby is born to upper middle class Sylvie and Hugh Todd. They name her Ursula. On the same night, little Ursula Todd is born with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, but the newly arrived doctor is able to free the child before asphyxiation sets in. Ursula grows into a child who unfortunately drowns when she follows her older sister too far out into the ocean on a family holiday at the beach. Or who doesn’t. Who climbs out onto the slippery tile roof to retrieve a doll that her brother had callously thrown out a window. Or who grows up to marry, or to live a spinster life, who survives the bombing on London in WWII, or doesn’t, or perhaps it was Munich and not London…
What is a life? Once lived, is it done? Or can time be reset, can life replay with a different outcome, where a decision made in a single moment will make the difference between happiness and resignation, between joy and darkness? If many different lives can branch out from a single conception, is there any sense of the others within that singular possibility?
These are questions that are not asked in Kate Atkinson’s ethereal novel Life After Life, but they are questions that constantly play in the back of the reader’s mind. And actually, the questions are not as important as the lives lived, how different they are, and yet how similar. Ursula’s world remains somewhat stable, the same characters arrive, impact, leave, but not always in the same pattern nor with the same effect (except her parents, who never seem to change from one life to the next). World history remains somewhat stable. But Ursula’s world? Her place in that history? Stability in these realms is not as assured.
What I found the most compelling in Life After Life was the astonishingly varied glimpses into the stable world that a slightly different and potentially unstable life can give. Sometimes the differences are subtle, sometimes explosive, but regardless, author Atkinson crafts each life with a deft touch that is absolutely, incredibly involving. Each consequence is beautifully detailed, many are achingly devastating. And the affect of life on history – whether that history be personal or worldly – is not ignored: history comes alive in the different ways Ursula walks through it, at least in the way we view it, we perceive it, we feel it.
Life After Life is a beautifully worked literary tone poem, playing on the emotions and the mind; in all its bits and pieces it ebbs and flows into a compelling and engaging story of a life lived from many angles, but all of them, all of them, are totally and completely Ursula. Whether you enjoy speculative fiction, literary fiction, or are a student of history, this is a book that you should definitely clear some time in your schedule to read.