Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson began her literary career by winning the Costa award for Behind the Scenes at the Museum and once again, with this novel, she has triumphed by winning the Costa Novel Award in 2013 [the Costa Book of the Year was won by Nathan Filer with Shock of the Fall].

This novel is essentially a family saga, starting in 1910, ending in 1967, but one with a difference.  The author announces this difference by quoting Nietzsche in the front of the book - and I am a sucker for Nietzsche quotes and so got lured in - 'what if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you:  this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more... And so Atkinson takes up this challenge with her chief character and gives her innumerable chances at life, allowing her to die and begin again, though always as the same person.  

This 'person' is Ursula Todd, the third child of a well-to-do Home Counties family living in a leafy suburb of London.   Her father Hugh is a successful banker and her mother, Sylvie, successful at producing children - three girls and two boys.   Apart from dying several times, Ursula grows up in a typical, middle class protected environment, not, however, without coming to grief with the opposite sex.   She goes on to serve as a fire warden in London during WW2 and this part is both the most interesting and best written part of the novel.   Though Ursula does have one or two close friends, a lot of the novel is taken up with her relationship with her parents and siblings, particularly with Pammy, her elder sister, and Teddy her younger brother.   Curiously, they seem unaffected by Ursula's frequent demises and relive scenes quite happily as Ursula has a 'second go' at surviving them.

Does this kind of Groundhog Day approach work?   Sometimes, it is a little frustrating in that I wanted her to survive a particular incident.   Sometimes, too, it is a little too clever. Atkinson, rather than re-inventing Ursula, uses sleight of hand or little twists of fate to permit her to survive.   This is in contrast to her aunt, Sylvie's sister, Isabel or Izzie as she is known who is a delightful character, totally unpredictable and constantly reinventing herself.   Ursula, for obvious reasons, suffers from deja vu but seems to consider this a normal human affliction.   There are interesting interludes such as when Ursula becomes best friends with Eva Braun and Atkinson paints a convincing picture of life in the Berghof with Hitler and his cronies.   Then there are some not so good pieces such as when, in the first three pages of the book, there is a what-if moment when Ursula shoots Hitler in 1930 in a bierkeller in Munich.   Not original.

Overall, I think this is a beach read - undemanding, funny in places, and skillful - though at 600 pages plus, it can get tiring.  The concept of playing with time is challenging but the novel doesn't quite live up to it.


  1. Piqued my interest...just in the market fir a beach read, timely too, had a copy of this in my hand not two days ago. Nice review.

  2. Nice review, my interest was piqued already and am just in the market for a beach read.

  3. This is the sort of book you either love or hate. it's not an easy read. Think Groundhog Day told over the course of a life instead of a day. But the characters are so well drawn, the stories so interesting and the writing so beautiful, that I was just sucked in. I found myself thinking of Ursula even when I wasn't reading the book. We read this for our book club and I can hardly wait to discuss it. Lots and lots of meaty issues!
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