Life After Life: A Novel

Image of Life After Life: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 2, 2013
Reagan Arthur Books
Reviewed by: 

“Readers will be torn by the impulse to race ahead while simultaneously savoring the fine writing.”

It is the rare writer who can create living, three-dimensional characters who become so real that when terrible things happen to them, the reader feels it physically. Tears fall.

This extraordinary story revolves around Ursula, starting at her birth. Ursula is different enough from the rest of her family that she is sent to a psychologist at the age of ten. Her “difference” is that she seems at times to know about things that haven’t yet happened.

Here’s a sample of the author’s dialogue starting with Ursula:

“I didn’t look, I just knew.”
“Ah, I know,” Bridget said. “For sure, you have the sixth sense.”
Mrs. Glover, wrestling with the plum pudding, snorted her disapproval. She was of the opinion that five senses were too many, let alone adding on another one.”

Some may compare the unusual structure of Kate Atkinson’s novel to the cult favorite film, Groundhog Day, in that time is often repeated with subtly different results. There may also be those who remember the alternate endings of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But Life After Life stands firmly on its own. Ten chapters share the same title: Snow / 11 February, 1910.

Ursula’s family, the Todds, live in the countryside outside of London in a very comfortable house called Fox Corners. Her siblings include sister Pammy and brothers Maurice and Teddy. Then there are parents Hugh (who drives a Bentley) and Sylvie; as well as Hugh’s sister, Izzie; the cook, Mrs. Glover, and her young Irish helper, Bridget; their families, neighbors, and dogs—all so marvelously developed that they are made real in our minds.

Kate Atkinson has shown this ability to create three-dimensional characters in her previous novels—all with their legions of faithful readers. Life After Life, however, makes a great leap forward.

With each chapter, many of which are but two pages long, the reader begins to wonder if the happenings are real or perhaps a dream. Ordinary family events are juxtaposed with the extraordinary. Ursula is born on 11 February 1910. But in August 1933, she is staying with a family in Munich and while there develops a friendship with Eva and encounters a character that is to have a devastating effect on world affairs. Seven years later she is living in London during the blitz.

Ms. Atkinson’s writing about living during the incessant bombing is brilliant:

“The other reason for the immense, treacherous dark was the thick cloud of smoke and dust that hung like a curtain of vile gossamer in the air. The stink, as usual, was awful. It wasn’t just the smell of coal gas and high explosive, it was the aberrant odor produced when a building was blown to smithereens. The smell of it wouldn’t leave her.”

“Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger—particularly a man—but now the danger from the skies seemed so much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.”

“It’s certainly busy tonight,” Miss Woolf said. A glorious understatement. There was a full-scale raid in progress, bombers droning overhead, glinting occasionally when they caught a searchlight. HE bombs flashed and roared and the large batteries banged and whuffed and cracked—all the usual racket. Shells whistled or screamed on their way up, a mile a second until they winked and twinkled like stars before extinguishing themselves.”

“It’s different when you know someone,” she said, gently stroking Mr. Palmer’s forehead. “I wonder where his spectacles are? He doesn’t look right without them, does he?”

Ursula couldn’t find a pulse. “Shall we move him?” she said. She took his shoulders and Miss Woolf his ankles and Mr. Palmer’s body came apart like a Christmas cracker.”

Readers will be torn by the impulse to race ahead while simultaneously savoring the fine writing.

Kate Atkinson’s first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. Case Histories, which introduced Jackson Brodie, was made into a television series. New readers will join her throngs of fans after this book. And while Life After Life may at first befuddle some of Kate Atkinson’s loyal readers, giving this exceptional saga a chance is well worth it.