book review: life after life by kate atkinson

This book was sent to me by Random House Australia. I have been asked to write a review and my review is truthful to my opinion of the book.


From the press release:

Kate Atkinson’s stunning new novel spans the most turbulent events of the 20th century and asks:

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again while it marches on towards its second cataclysmic war. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, playful and wise, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

Growing up, I used to believe in reincarnation. I thought that deja vu was simply elements of past lives that we were remembering. As I was not raised Buddhist, I was quickly told that we don’t believe that but that some people do. I always imagined what it would be like, living multiple lives (or the same life) over and over again and if you would have any recollection of it.

It turns out that Ursula Todd knows. She is born and she dies multiple times throughout her life, each life bringing about a different course of action. In one life she is raped by a friend of her brothers and cast aside by her mother as a pregnancy occurs. In another, she is friends with Eva Braun, the elusive mistress of Herr Hitler. One lifetime sees her marry and have a child. Another sees her single most of her life, despite taking a few lovers. All of these stories are intertwined.

At first (and if I’m being honest, throughout most of the book), the various lifetimes can be a bit confusing. It’s hard to know what happens in each life. It is confusing because there are many cross-overs in characters and story lines  with the differences in life times being only marginal. It was only at the end that I felt that everything came full circle and felt like I really understood what was happening. It was a very clever literary device and had I been more alert, I may have been able to decipher it better. I’m sure many people have and will continue to do so.

The thing that impressed me the most about this novel was the depth of the secondary characters. I felt the love that Ursula had for Pamela and Teddy, the disdain everyone seemed to have towards Maurice. The comfort found in Hugh and the judgment in Sylvie. The free spirit in Izzie and the chatty nature of Millie. While the story was centered around  Ursula, the amount of detail in the other characters made it a very compelling read.

One of the more ironic and clever things said in the book by Atkinson is this:

‘No point in thinking,’ she said briskly, ‘you just have to get on with life.’ (She really was turning into Miss Woolf.) ‘We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.’

It seems to undermine the whole pretense of the book, the fact that Ursula has been given multiple lives, multiple opportunities to “get it right”. It is not until the very end though that we discover what she was meant to do.

My favourite thing said in the book was this:

Ursula found it very odd to think that up above them there were German bombers being flown by men who, essentially, were just like Teddy. They weren’t evil, they were just doing what had been asked of them by their country. It was war itself that was evil, not men. Although she would make an exception for Hitler.

I think this is a fantastic comment and it is most fantastic because it is true. It is war itself that is evil. There are soldiers in all armies (especially in the First and Second World Wars) who were on active duty because they were conscripted or required to go, not because of any desire they had.

Life After Life takes you through the wars, both in England and in Germany, the outbreak of influenza and the rationing experienced in both countries. You are presented with varying view points of history, the most fascinating to me was when Ursula was in Germany with Eva and spent time in the presence of Hitler.

This has to be one of the most unique, interesting and gripping novels I have read in a long time. The original quality of the story left me curious and wanting more.

Life After Life is a truly fascinating read and I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in reincarnation, alternate realities, multiple lives and various accounts of history. My only advice is to really pay attention so you don’t get confused with the multiple stories.

You can visit Kate’s website here and read more about the book here.

You can read Kate’s notes on the novel here.



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