Kate Atkinson’s Life after life is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
To quote the back cover:
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.
That baby is Ursula Todd. She dies at birth, strangled by her umbilical cord. But then the story starts over again, and this time the doctor makes it in time despite the snowstorm, and she survives.
At the age of four, at a beach in Cornwall, she and her sister are swept out to sea. No – an amateur painter notices the girls struggling in the water and carries them safely to the shore.
Again and again, Ursula starts over and avoids the death that ended her previous attempt.
Ursula herself gradually becomes vaguely aware that her life is repeating. She sometimes knows what is about to happen, and gets a sense of foreboding when she approaches a pivotal point in her life. Sometimes this helps her avert the tragedy; sometimes not.
The turnings and returnings may sound repetitive, but I would rather describe them as rhythmic, even mesmerising. Each time Ursula relives an event, we learn something new about it. Perhaps we see it from another character’s viewpoint, or maybe simply from a different angle. Our view of the web of Ursulas life/lives becomes richer and denser with each turning of the wheel.
There are an awful lot of ways for a girl to die. Accidents. Influenza. (That one took several attempts to get past.) An abusive husband. The world war.
The war and the endless bombing of London take up a major chunk of the book. According to the author, the book was triggered by her thoughts the war that she just missed. It is a book of “bearing witness to the past”.
But to me it is also about the vulnerability of life, and the fear and pain of losing our loved ones. Ursula’s mother loses not just her, over and over, but sometimes also her brothers and sisters. Ursula herself sometimes starts over not for her own sake, but for that of others.
With these premises, the book could be a really depressing read. But there is so much warmth and love in Ursulas lives, and there is always that persistent hope that next time will be better.
Kate Atkinson is an incredibly skilled writer. I feel tempted to pile up all sorts of praise here. Beautiful, rich, vibrant… This is a wonderful book, one of the best I’ve read.