Monday, 24 June 2013

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Ursula is born into the middle of a snowstorm. She is born to a family of middling privilege, the middle child of what will ultimately be a family of seven. It is January 1910.

She dies.

She is born again and survives to the age of four.

She dies.

She is born again and survives to the age of five.

Life after life, this is the story of Ursula and the infinite variations by which she lives and survives and dies and lives again. Her lives are as turbulent as the period of history through which lives: WWI, WWII, and all the changes around and in between. They are lives of passion and plenty, of desperation and survival, heroism, love and despair, mistakes and fixes, frustrations and foresight. All of these things make Life After Life an amazing and intriguing book, and you feel Ursula’s love and frustration and determination in every word and on every page.

Why does Ursula live again and again? To get it “right”? But what is “right”? As her reincarnations build up, echoes seep into her consciousness, causing little changes here and there, unexplainable fears that – for the most part – seem to prevent her from repeating past tragedies. With every chapter I wondered: what will change here? How will she fix this problem? Which path will she choose this time? Generally, she follows a similar route through adolescence and early adulthood each time, with just the occasional larger deviation. What does this say about theorized forces of fate and destiny – that, at heart, we are always the same? Perhaps that the same wants and desires will always drive us (no matter how many chances at life we or Ursula may get), and thus the outcomes will always be similar. We cannot control everything around us, after all; other lives will inevitably bounce off our own.

How much, though, does Ursula really take with her each time she starts again? As time goes on, it seems as if her previous lives become more and more distinct, her decisions more determined and precise, more planned to a specific end. The dramatic opening chapter gives a hint as to what she might be capable of changing, but what happens next?

While some characters appear and disappear, others pop up again and again; similarly the same tragedies weave their way through her lives, some of which she can limit - or even prevent in some lifetimes - while other incidents remain frustratingly out of her sphere of influence. Or are they? And where does it end?

Life After Life is a bittersweet story that brings to life the turmoil of WWII and the turbulence of being alive. A “high concept” novel this may be, but Kate Atkinson realizes it truthfully and tragically.

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