BookBrowse Reviews Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Apr 2013, 544 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2014, 560 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


Ursula Todd, the protagonist in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, is a literary character seemingly invented just to illustrate, if not answer, the oldest questions of all time: What if I could live my life all over again?

As a fan of Kate Atkinson's inventive fiction, I should have known what I was getting myself into when I tackled reviewing her latest novel, Life After Life. Yes, the book exceeds the five hundred-page mark and thus requires a certain commitment, but the long and sometimes exhausting mental journey springs primarily from Atkinson's cleverness in using unconventional structure to her advantage – the pathway of the repeated lives of protagonist Ursula Todd.

Ursula, the story's unlikely heroine, is born and then dies…and then is born again in February 1910. She enters the world for the first time stillborn, but survives her birth in the very next chapter due to a slight change in chronology and weather – a doctor makes it through a snowstorm just in time in the second version. And so goes the entire book and Ursula's many and varied lives. She is a literary character seemingly invented just to illustrate, if not answer, one of the oldest and most potentially regret-inducing questions of all time: What if I could live my life all over again?

The permutations of Ursula span both World Wars and are influenced by the influencers of her family, particularly her siblings. In every version of her life, her banker father, Hugh, and her inscrutable full time mother, Sylvie, raise Ursula comfortably in rural England. The intricacies of the Todd family life are just as important in the overall narrative as Ursula's unusual deja vu. As she has in past works, Atkinson spends a great deal of time exploring domestic relationships, the mysteries and vagaries of marriage, the intimacy and terror that sibling relationships can produce. Indeed, it is Ursula's love for her family that often brings on the uneasy premonitions that motivate her to try to change the future – or is it the past?

Reviewing with a divided mind is not easy. Do I say that the writing here is of the highest quality, that the settings are vivid? Yes. That even the complex structure and repetition serve a purpose? Yes, again. But will I also be transparent enough to say that the story wearied me, that it began to overwhelm? I must. The inevitable comparisons to a certain Bill Murray film may explain some of my mixed feelings. After all, the same person repeating the living of daily life in the same time and general geography eventually boggles the mind.

Yet I sense my discomfort is rooted somewhere deeper, perhaps in the very intent of Atkinson's literary experiment. I, like many members of the human race, am prone to much pondering of the "what ifs", "should haves", and "could haves." This novel simultaneously encourages and discourages these mental gymnastics. Ursula's ability to live life over and over affords her the opportunity of all my hindsighted daydreams. She is given the chance to alter the smallest details, such as saving a favorite childhood toy from a spiteful brother, as well as world history, seen in the opening pages as she attempts to prevent World War II.

The longer I accompanied Ursula through her lives, the more I wondered just how desirable this kind of alternate history would be. Ursula's fortunes and happiness varies throughout; there is no neat chronological order of improvement. She gains and loses in each life and while some are considerably more negative than others, Atkinson gives her reader no clues whether any of Ursula's lifetimes are the ideal.

In the end, I can easily recommend this book as entertaining and full of the dark wit and apt imagery that Kate Atkinson does so very well. The recommendation simply comes with a small note of caution: beware if you like your fiction neat and tidy and your characters to experience closure. Life After Life is not quite that kind of book.

Here is Kate Atkinson's author note about Life After Life, as well as a bibliography for the book.

Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie

This review was originally published in April 2013, and has been updated for the January 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Blitz

One-Month Free Membership

Discover your next great read here

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Good Me Bad Me
    Good Me Bad Me
    by Ali Land
    Is a psychopath born or made? This is the terrifying question that author Ali Land explores in her ...
  • Book Jacket: Five-Carat Soul
    Five-Carat Soul
    by James McBride
    In the short story "Sonny's Blues," from the 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man, African-...
  • Book Jacket: This Blessed Earth
    This Blessed Earth
    by Ted Genoways
    For the Hammonds, a farming family in Nebraska, the 2014 harvest season started with a perfect storm...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

An eye-opening and riveting look at how how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Seven Days of Us
    by Francesca Hornak

    A warm, wry debut novel about a family forced to spend a week together over the holidays.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Wisdom of Sundays

The Wisdom of Sundays
by Oprah Winfrey

Life-changing insights from super soul conversations.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

A Good M I H T F

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.