Here we go around again : Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’

After agonising over what books to take away on my recent holiday to Tenerife (always my favourite packing dilemma!), I decided on Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I made the mistake of starting it two days before we left, and had to grapple with myself to put it down so I could crack on with packing/cooking/remembering to breathe. It was so all-consuming, I’d got halfway through it before we even left the house, so I had to pack an extra emergency book in case I ran out.

Where to start? I was already a huge fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing and have been since reading Behind the Scenes in the Museum eons ago. After reading the endless rave reviews of both Life After Life and A God in Ruins, I knew I was in for a treat, even though the premise of the novel – a life lived over again, and again – hadn’t grabbed me before I began reading. I think it’s fair to say that in a less talented writer’s hands, such a plot device could have become clunky and distracting, but fortunately Atkinson’s literary skill was more than capable of matching such an ambitious structure.

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The life in question, that of Ursula Todd, ends almost as soon as it begins. Like glimpsing an infinite number of versions of that same life from parallel universes, we see it begin again, and again, and again. Each time, the slightest change in circumstance sets Ursula’s life onto a different trajectory, and while some factors remain present in each life, in other lives, something seemingly insignificant or beyond her control has dramatic consequences on the shape of both her life and that of others. Ursula remains at her core the same person, despite the different turns that each life takes, but I was profoundly moved by how Kate Atkinson explores the deep and far-reaching effects that a single traumatic incident can have on a person’s self-esteem, aspirations and demeanor. Equally, when life has been kind, and confidence has been fostered, the very same person flourishes.

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Each of Ursula’s lives begins within the confines of middle class family life in rural England, and vividly evokes the changing times both before and during wartime on the domestic sphere. The terrifying threat to the tight-knit community of an opportunistic stranger roaming the area made for harrowing reading, but then again, it is within the safety of the family home, Fox Corner, that Ursula suffers a violation that will continue to damage her life for years to come.

As each of Ursula’s various incarnations take different turns in life, we get to see multiple visions of the impact of the war, and not just from an English perspective, but also the suffering of ordinary German people during the war, all due to the egotism of a power-hungry dictator so quick to dispense with lives to meet his own ends. Ultimately, Ursula’s relived, revised lives culminate in her taking courageous steps to dramatically alter the bigger picture.

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Against this richly drawn backdrop of war, Atkinson’s innovative novel is not only a keenly observed portrait of the effects of war on the lives of ordinary people, but an exploration of fate and personal agency. Who of us, given the opportunity, would actively seek to change both history and our own personal stories if we could? And would it have any effect in the end anyway?

I loved Life After Life. The sheer inventiveness of the novel left me awestruck. If it weren’t for the need to keep a few of Kate Atkinson’s novels aside for emergencies, I’d have already devoured A God in Ruins. However, I’m down to my last few, so it’ll have to wait for a special occasion – if I can hold out that long!