Life After Life
Monday, Nov 2, 2015
If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently? If you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler? Life After Life is an inventive novel by Kate Atkinson that explores both questions, and much more.
When Ursula Todd is born for the first time on a snowy night in 1910, she dies almost immediately. But this isn't the end of her story--far from it, in fact. Every time Ursula dies, she is born again. This isn't reincarnation, strictly speaking. She's born at the same time, to the same parents, into the same life. But it's always just a bit different somehow. She drowns, dies of the flu, falls out of windows. She's a spy during World War II, she's a loyal German wife in the upper echelons of the Third Reich, she's a lower-level bureaucrat in the British government. She dies at the hands of an abusive husband, she dies of alcoholism, she is bombed during the Blitz. Eventually Ursula realizes she has some control over what will happen to her, she begins to carry a grain of knowledge with her from one life to the next, and she starts to consider the question of what is really important in her life.
Ursula's many lives--and deaths--are captivating, but the first third or so of the novel can feel a bit repetitive and frustrating. Just as it seems like you're actually getting somewhere with the story, Ursula dies and it all starts over again. But once she regularly manages to make it past childhood, the book really takes off. It's absolutely fascinating to see the many paths one life can take, the simple decisions than can make an enormous difference, the close brushes with disaster, the narrow misses. Despite the fact that, yes, Ursula gets (or makes) the opportunity to kill Hitler (more than once, actually), in the end it seems that a personal decision to save one life in particular becomes Ursula's focus rather than perfecting her method for assassinating the Führer. Is this the right choice? Is it what she should have done? Is it what you'd do? Not only is this novel an incredibly fun read, it's an endlessly thought-provoking one as well. I absolutely adored this book.
There is a follow-up novel, A God in Ruins, that follows Ursula's beloved younger brother, Teddy, and his descendants through the war and into the present day. While told in a more conventional format, the story is still richly layered, with many threads, tracing back and forth through the various stories of Teddy and his family at various places and times. I found Life After Life to be the more satisfying of the two, but you may find yourself, like me, desperate to tear into the sequel immediately upon finishing the first one.