Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

A quick rundown… Ursula seems like your average English girl, but with a twist – she lives her life over and over until she ‘gets it right’.

Strengths: Original idea, kind of like a ‘choose your own adventure’ in that we can see both sides of Ursula’s ‘what-ifs’.

Weaknesses: At one point, I wanted Ursula to die so she could make the right choice next time!

Why I read it: eARC from Random House – thank you!

Pages: 479

Published: 2013

Publisher: Random House

Setting: England and Europe

Rating: 9 out of 10

Life After Life is one of the most original ideas for a novel that I’ve seen for a long time. It takes the simple question of; ‘What if you could live your life again?’ and runs with it to create a rich novel that actually had me wanting the main character to die – so she could get it right the next time round.

I had read a Kate Atkinson novel before (a crime novel about Jackson Brodie, private investigator) which I thought was okay, but didn’t set my world on fire. However, I thought that her writing was excellent and I’m glad that she has written a different genre this time. Life After Life revolves around Ursula, who is born on the 11th February 1910 and promptly dies. She is then born again and lives. This theme is repeated through the novel and I feel it’s like one of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books for children/teenagers. You don’t get to choose the path Ursula takes personally, but if she makes a wrong choice, she dies and the whole thing starts again. That might sound a little frustrating, but we don’t always go back to Ursula’s birth each time. There was one part where I felt really exasperated (where Ursula must prevent an event from happening to survive) because Ursula kept failing and then she’d die a horrible death – multiple times. There was another part where her life became utterly miserable and I actually hoped she’d die so free herself from the pain – it was agonising, but it did happen.

As you’ve guessed, Ursula dies at multiple times during the novel, turning her life towards different paths. Is each one better, greater than the last? Not necessarily – although she has the power of living her life several times, she’s still an ordinary person that dislikes her brother, has love affairs and suffers throughout World War II. Ursula also doesn’t really know that she has several lives – she does get odd feelings of déjà vu (especially when she dies multiple times in the same situation) and it does interfere with her future life sometimes.

So which is the ‘best’ life that Ursula leads? Is it one where she changes the course of history or lives a quiet, happy life? Atkinson doesn’t specify – it’s up to the reader to decide. Did she even make the best of it? Again, that’s a question for the reader and it will depend on the values that the individual holds as important – education, marriage, family and courage. As she leads multiple lives, it’s the reader’s choice to cobble together the ones that fit best. Atkinson is not specific whether Ursula’s story ends or is cyclical.

In between Ursula’s unusual talent is a lovely historical novel about family, growing up and relationships in England. There’s sure to be a lot to thrill those into symbolism and the deeper meaning of what Ursula’s life events all mean. There’s also a lot to enjoy if you like your characters to have a wide range of experiences with a story full of memorable characters. Ursula’s aunt is a scream – a fallen woman who defies convention to become independent and wealthy. Her sister is steady and dependable, while her brother is truly awful.

I really enjoyed the originality of this book, which kept me up very late on several occasions as I read feverishly, hoping Ursula would get her life ‘right’. A must read for 2013.

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20 thoughts on “Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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  1. I’m not really sure if this book would appeal to me. Thank you though for a well written ( as usual) review. You never know if I see it round I may try reading it.

  2. I really loved this latest Atkinson, too. So good. (BTW, did you start reading the Jackson Brodie books with the first one–Case Histories? This is my absolute favorite book of hers.)

  3. I had a hard time summarising my thoughts when I reviewed this one but I loved this book as much as you did, mostly because it wasn’t as easy as it could have been and played with lots of ideas about historical fiction, why we’re here etc. I must admit I’d never read much Atkinson before and don’t fancy her crime fiction but I’m keen to try some of her other books now. 🙂

  4. I’m reading this now so I only skimmed your review. So far I like it. It’s disorienting in a good way… and causing me to read slower than usual. And sometimes re-read!

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