This novel is one I purchased as an eBook maybe a few years back (I forget how long, but it’s been a while), with the intent to read it once I finished The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Harry August was a great read and I do recommend it if you ever come across it. I may possibly do a review on it in the future, so keep an eye out if you want to know what it’s about.
Anyway, get prepared for some spoilers, though it would be kind of hard to spoil a book like this. In a good way, of course.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life was a quite decent read. Reading novels based on reincarnation (one of my favorite topics, by the way), has led me to realize that the story itself will be long. Depending on the way the story is written, you find yourself tracking a lot of events and information that happens in the protagonist’s life. This is exactly how Atkinson writes her novel.
It begins the way every life does, at birth. On a the night of a snowstorm in 1910, Ursula Todd is born and dies from strangulation by her umbilical cord, the family doctor never making it in time to assist in her delivery. On that same night, Ursula is born and the doctor is present to cut the chord, allowing her to live for a few years before she drowns at the age of five. The cycle of Ursula rejoining the world of the living repeats itself over and over, her life ending at various lengths of time. Throughout her lifetimes, Ursula experiences rape, a horrific abortion experience, domestic violence, alcoholism, affairs, and even lives in one of Hilter’s home with the famed Eva Braun.
Something that stands out during each lifetime is the acute awareness she has of events of her previously lived life. She doesn’t know what exactly is going to happen, but she knows it will be bad. There is a life where the family’s nanny, Bridget, becomes ill from a night out celebrating with her fiance. One of Ursula’s younger brothers, Teddy, contract the illness and so does Ursula, killing all three of them. They catch the sickness and die about three or four more times and die, with Ursula feeling something terrible will happen if Bridget were to go out that night every life after the first incident. She results, in one life, to shoving poor Bridget down the stairs, injuring the woman’s ankle and saving them from this round of death. In another life, Ursula lies to Bridget, informing the nanny that her fiance was cheating on her with a store clerk. The fiance ends up dying of the illness alone in that life.
Out of all the characters, I can openly say I enjoyed Ursula Todd and most of her family. Her father, Hugh, was always warming to read. Compared to other fathers described in this era, Hugh wanted nothing more than for his children to be happy. Sylvie, their mother, was always a confusing character. She’d had instilled in her that a woman’s role was to be nothing more than a wife and mother, though she always seemed to live with regret for never doing more for herself. Maurice, the eldest of the Todd children, is the easiest (and the only one) to dislike out of the Todd children. He’s a horrid brute for just about any reason he likes. It could be that his parents always see the worse in him so he acts so, but he never tries to rectify his behavior to show otherwise. He is always distant toward his family, seeing as he was sent away to boarding school as a way to avoid dealing with him by his parents. No one was usually thrilled when Maurice was back.
Pamela, the second born, is always kind and a good friend to Ursula. Ursula being the middle child is interesting on her own, regardless of the fact that the entire novel centers on her experiences. She is always curious about life itself and doesn’t live it to the norm. She herself is odd, questioning all her experiences of life. Teddy is the favorite of I believe all the family. Including the youngest, Jimmy. Ursula is especially closer to Teddy than the rest, though she does show a decent amount of Jimmy (who was born after Hugh’s return from WWI). There are various other characters within the novel, including Izzie, their father’s free-spirited younger sister, and others who come and go from life to life.
While this was an enjoyable read, my first con is how I quickly noted that the story focuses mostly on the time of World War II. Personally, I’ve read so much of WWII in my 20-something year lifetime that I’m sick of it. Unlike most of our society, I know what Hitler did was wrong and I’d very much never want it to happen again. I don’t (can’t) take it personally, seeing as these were, sadly, the events of that time. For me, there is a painfully long section about Ursula her daughter and their life among those very close to Hitler. They lived lavishly for months until Ursula got a bad feeling and decided to leave. The following day after their departure, the Nazi’s invaded Poland. As expected, everything went downhill from there and Ursula and her little girl died hungry, cold, and in one another’s arms. Obviously, she is born again to live her life once more. I don’t believe she ever has kids after this life.
Keeping track of all the events in which and every life is pretty rough, also. Some people don’t come across Ursula’s path again when she takes a different course after being born again. Conversations happen or don’t happen and relationships happen or don’t happen. It got a little hard to follow who knew what or who didn’t know what since everything keeps resetting every so often. Sometimes, I found myself missing characters and hoping to see more of them or curious to what became of them. It doesn’t take away from the novel, but it does feel longer because of all the new and old information of lives lived. Not that one can say a phrase like that everyday.
Ursula restarting her life over and over is quite fun and interesting, too. More so during some rough situations, like when she (unknowingly) married a chronic liar and abuser. It’s sad to say that specific lifetime didn’t end well, but luckily she doesn’t make the same mistake again. The same goes for when she’s sexually assaulted by one of Maurice’s friends on her 16th birthday. In every life after, she kicks him in the shin and gets away before he even has a chance to think about forcing himself on her. She even stops or avoids tragic events from occurring in their home or with family friends, all with nothing more than a feeling something may go wrong if she does nothing.
I am pleased to know that there is a companion novel to this, A God in Ruins, which tells of Teddy’s story. While I question Ursula’s over purpose of her later life cycles, I’m interested to know where it continues. I look forward to picking up the companion and learning what happens next to any and all the characters in Life After Life.
If you come across Life After Life, I do recommend picking it up and giving it a read. If you don’t care for stories pertaining WWII, feel free to give this a pass. While there’s nothing wrong with learning about events in history, this one does drone one for quite a while about different life experiences pertaining to the word. It is still a good read, regardless. If you’ve already read it, leave a comment! This novel deserves to be discussed in greater depth as there is so much a review can only cover. I hope you like this novel as much as I do.