Book Review: Life After Life [by Kate Atkinson]

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Life After Life is my first Atkinson. Hilary Mantel (of Wolf Hall fame) called it “a box of delights” which I find to be both accurate and inaccurate (I suppose, depending on how one would define ‘delight’ in this context).

On a cold February night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born and dies. On a cold February night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, and she lives. Life After Life – born to Sylvie and Hugh Todd, a wealthy British couple in a house called Fox Corner (as named by Sylvie) Ursula embarks on a strange life, or countless lives. She lives and dies repeatedly; reborn again and again as herself, with the same family, at different points in her life (lives?) – through the two World Wars, and after.

It is both interesting and reassuring to me that writers of contemporary lit often don’t feel the need to examine cause (if at all) as much as they examine effect. This is not meant as a criticism; contemporary lit is not science fiction. A situation is put forward, then the reader accepts it (willing suspension of disbelief, blah-blah-blah) and watches as the characters react to some kind of weird disaster. I mean off the top of my head Station Eleven comes to mind (although I’m sure there are better examples). Authors aren’t as concerned with hows and whys and so Ursula’s life-after-life journey is never explained, it’s just experienced. I’m glad this is a thing now. I get let off the hook for not coming up with whys. I’m a lazy writer. They exist.

I did a little too much thinking while reading this book (+ drank copious amounts of tea). That may have had something to do with the 600 odd pages in small print but it was mostly because Atkinson’s style is a bundle of contrasts – rich and somehow dreamlike at the same time. It’s detailed and distant, kind of like a lucid dream (but more interesting). It was often the disconcerting, snowglobe-look-in (an ungrammatical but somehow appealing phrase right) feeling of peering at a world through a layer of window and mist. This adds up because it’s often cold in this book (set mostly in England, which explains it). Makes for a very good winter read really.

I find it easy to like Atkinson’s lovely, kaleidoscopic writing, and I’ll read more of her purely for this; this feeling of being both on the inside and on the outside (I can’t guarantee this for anyone else who reads it, but I felt it more or less consistently).

On to other things. The pacing is a little too uneven; Atkinson spends too much time having Ursula ‘redo’ some parts of her life/lives – a bit like looping, or restarting from a last saved point in a game. Then she spends too little time on on other parts. Maybe she intended to create a sense of confusion – where does one life end and the other begin? – and she did succeed, I went back a few times trying to link up a life to one mentioned 50 pages back before I realised that wasn’t quite how it worked. To be honest, while the concept of Life After Life is very interesting, it wasn’t why I liked the book. Atkinson uses the device to retell, to add more, to make the circle around Ursula as wide or as narrow as she likes, and I did appreciate some of that. But at times it became too much of a mess. Personally I like to have timelines and details straight in my brain, and while timelines were specified, Ursula would age further, die horribly (she often dies in extreme ways), and then go back a couple years and age beyond the last point, only to die again and then fast forward five years where she’s travelling somewhere in Germany. The lives are not continuations of each other. What comes before the chapter and what comes after she dies – I could guess but it’s a mystery.

I can accept that Atkinson’s concept probably wouldn’t have worked without this back-and-forth, but somehow it didn’t really work for me. It bothered me a little, the gaps, the lack of momentum or too much momentum, and it all felt slightly random, as if Ursula was just dying more or less frequently depending on the author’s whim. I mean, I don’t expect every move to have meaning. But the pattern just didn’t sit well with me.

For at least a good chunk of the first few chapters, Ursula isn’t as important as Sylvie. And in reading those pages, I first formed the impression that this is all we were going to get of the characters: glimpses. Like an aside in a play, Sylvie’s dry (somewhat on the border between sarcastic and witty) inner monologue is predominant in the first few chapters. Here Ursula is still a child, so she plays less of a role, and her thoughts are naturally less mature (but still introspective). Sylvie is interesting as a half-person. She gets more of a voice than the other side characters do in the rest of the novel, but she’s still not fully-formed. Yet the reason I mentioned her is because Sylvie’s growing distance from the reader after Ursula takes over the narrative makes her more fascinating. She’s more than a little hypocritical; I get the feeling I wouldn’t like her if I met her, but she’s very human and also very far away at the same time (sensing a theme here), and I do feel that that’s an achievement on Atkinson’s part. It’s different. The other side characters are satisfactorily drawn, there are far too many of them to go over, but I thought they were handled quite well.

Ursula herself (I’ll try not to spoil, but if you’re worried, don’t read further). She grew on me quite quickly. At first I was afraid she would remain too distant, all this splicing of lives and chapters would leave me without much of a clue as to who she was, but this resolved itself. The older she grew, the easier it became. Although at times she still felt a little nebulous, I don’t find this surprising because she kept being placed in different situations – in one life she’s living through the Blitz in London, in another she’s a mother trapped in Germany, and in yet another she’s in a deeply unhappy marriage. She’s the same person in all of these, and I won’t put her into a few words because I think people – and Atkinson has created, with Ursula, a definite person – transgress three-word adjectives. I liked particularly her introspection regarding her memories, her sense of déjà vu – it made the whole infinite-lives device a little more personal.

“Ursula still harboured the feeling that some of her future was also behind her but she had learned not to voice such things.”

I should add a warning for sexual assault. For Atkinson’s part, she does her best to give a harrowing experience the gravity it deserves, although I remain somewhat confused about her personal opinion regarding abortion. The book also focusses heavily on war – particularly the Blitz. There’s little to be said about war in general that hasn’t already been said, but there were many well-written, very profound and genuinely sad moments which Ursula navigated. With regard to the Hitler element, honestly, I feel it was given far more weight than necessary, since it acted as a kind of bookend to the novel. I’d forgotten about it by the time I reached the end, and the novel could’ve held up just as well without – it was just too-random an element, resurfacing from nowhere.

Anyways, I’m done now. If I haven’t been clear about it, this was a good read. Despite not being a very happy book (maybe Mantel and I were reading different editions) it’s still a testament to how full of detail a life is. In every paragraph, there’s a thought, or a character, something new.

I apologise both for the length of this review and for the fact that these might not be very interesting. I’ll try to be less boring in the future (will I?) I’m sure. I think these function less as ‘reviews’ and more as ‘my thoughts on ____ book’ but that’s too unwieldy to put in a title. Yeah well, content will be misleading on the internet (shocker). Also I changed my theme! I’m very proud. I’ve been through WordPress’ theme list like a hundred times. Probably the most work I’ve done all week.

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