Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.
Does Ursula's apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can -- will she?
Early in the novel we recognize Ursula as an "old soul" and in Kate Atkinson's strategy for telling the story of Ursula's multiple lives and deaths, the narrative progression through history will certainly resonate with readers familiar with the themes of déjà vu and reincarnation. Actually, I think every reader will be able to find resonance with this terrifically engaging narrative, regardless of the philosophical or religious subtexts. It is the intricate plotting through actual historical events which takes on an excitingly different cast - not the usual suspense of "What happens next?" but, to quote Ursula's brother Teddy; "What if you had the chance to do it again and again, until you finally got it right? Would you do it?"
Ursula is truly a remarkable character of depth whom we take interest in for her own sake as an individual and not for anything she might symbolize as a literary heroine. We are able to connect with her viscerally (and we do many times over). The other primary characters who populate her story are no less remarkable than she. Her family, her friends, her lovers, and even her Zen master-like psychiatrist are all highly believable individuals with whom we can easily identify.
Life After Life is crafted impeccably with a language rich in stunning metaphors and poetic imagery. At the same time the narrative manages to be unpretentiously intelligent, effortlessly witty, and deeply touching. Each “loop” of Ursula’s life is a tale of tenderness and poignancy, horror and outrage, pity and fear, laughter and jubilance, sorrow and grief. Darkly comic, startlingly poignant, and utterly original -- this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best.
~ Leslie West