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Book Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled. — beginning of the second chapter of Life After Life.

This book came onto my radar in the end-of-year wrapup in Locus, where it was noted as having won a UK National Book Award, acclaim from Publishers Weekly, Amazon Editors’ Top 100 Print Books, and Time Magazine. Its central concept is fairly simple: the protagonist, Ursula Todd, is a woman who lives many parallel lives. Each time her life reaches a point where she might have died (beginning at her birth, when she enters the world with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck), one version of her ends there; another continues on. Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that she has some deja-vu-esque memories of these events, that allow her to avoid the pitfalls in the next go-round.

That’s as far as the book goes in terms of “genre” elements: overall, it feels much more like a piece of early-20th-century historical fiction. Ursula is born in 1910, in the English countryside. So she experiences the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 (more than once); she works in London during the Blitz; she moves to Germany and hangs out with Eva Braun in the ’30s. And none of that is even very spoilery, because the very first thing we see Ursula do in this book is kill Hitler.

The genre piece of this story is definitely in the subtext. There’s never any explanation for why Ursula experiences her life over and over again in a weird cross between reincarnation and Groundhog Day. But by the end of the book, she’s clearly aware something odd is happening to her, and she uses it to attempt to set things right in a serious way: for her family, for England and for the world.

I actually enjoyed this book more than I expected to at the start. The style is unconventional in places; because of the conceit that every time Ursula dies she starts over again, there are some sections where the same ground is covered over and over, sometimes in quick succession (we see the Spanish flu hit the Todd household about 4 times in the space of 20 pages) and sometimes over a much longer period (there are several incarnations of World-War-II-era Ursula that run on for many chapters apiece before “resetting”). I might have had trouble with this if I were a slower reader, but as it was, I was able to hold the book in my head well enough that the revisiting of old plotlines felt clever rather than annoying.

The star of the book is Ursula, but we also spend a lot of time with her parents and siblings, and some with various romantic partners she has in the different timelines. The characters are generally likeable (except for the intentionally unlikeable ones) and well-drawn, and although I don’t know a huge amount about early-20th-century British history I didn’t feel like I was struggling to keep up with the author’s references, which is always a plus.

Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, I might recommend this one to people who think they don’t like genre fiction: I think it could have significant crossover appeal. But it’s also worth reading for the genre fiction crowd, if only because the concept lingers with you when you’ve finished. I am most definitely a subscriber to the “everything happens for a reason” belief system, and Ursula’s deja-vu-fueled life choices definitely speak to that philosophy. We all have those moments of walking through life when we suddenly stop and shiver — the “goose walking over your grave” feeling — but this book puts a different spin on them. When you suddenly feel the urge to change your plans unexpectedly, maybe it’s because the ship you’re sailing on is doomed; or maybe your classmate’s had a vision of your plane going up in flames; or maybe you’d just meet someone at the coffeeshop who’d set your life on a track you don’t want.

As the book notes toward the end: “Practice makes perfect.”

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  1. Book Review: My Real Children, by Jo Walton | Sociologist Novelist

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