on 17 June 2013
A seemingly small event can change the direction of a life completely: a chance encounter with a stranger who harms you or a conversation that detains you which means you miss bumping into the person, a meeting with the German you fall in love with and marry or being helped up from a fall by an Englishman. Life is full of moments which change the direction a person travels in and we have all wished we could go back and change something, or do it over again in a different way. And Life After Life explores this theme intricately, with sympathy, compassion and superb writing and plotting.
Ursula keeps being born, in 1910, living, dying and being born again within the same family but her decisions and reactions to events change, sometime nudged by a sense that something must be avoided at all costs, and her life keeps going off in different directions as she lives through the turbulent events of the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes you desperately want her to die so that a particular cycle will end and in others you want her to fight through and succeed.
Atkinson crafts Ursula's repeated lives beautifully and you are with her, rooting for her, in every one. But it is not just Ursula we get to know through her successive lives but also her family, friends, brief acquaintances and villains. We see not only the different directions Ursula takes but the impact of life and events on the people around her. Even the characters who make brief appearances are rich with detail and the main characters continue to grow through Ursula's lives along with our greater intimacy with Ursula herself. How many times can we read of a character being born? Well the answer is many times and still never be tired of it. A single event in Ursula's life can be seen from multiple viewpoints and as we progress through different lives we see tiny and different details which make the repeated experience of the event richer and more complete.
Life After Life deserves 5 stars for the complexity of its plotting, the depth of characterisation, the scope of the story and for being a magnificent piece of writing. This is a novel that stayed with me long after the final sentence.
What a treat "Life After Life" was (especially after boring The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike)!) It's such a magnificent, beautifully written, utterly absorbing novel; the fact that it's around 500 pages long did not matter once I was immersed in the magical narrative.
So, this is a story (almost a saga) of a family the Todds, and particularly of Ursula Todd, a girl born during the storm in February 1910, who lives through the twentieth century witnessing some of the important events of our history. It's a tale of life, loss and rebirth. Ursula (who is very lovable, in fact, all her family are adorable, except perhaps for one member) meets her death at a number of times during the book through accidents, sickness and sometimes through violent death. Sometimes death comes sooner than I hoped, but at all times you can almost sense the presence of Grim Reaper somewhere close to the Todds family (and how unlucky can Ursula be if the death is waiting for her behind almost every corner!). But each time, when the death claims Ursula, the story rewinds straight to the beginning, but is told from a slightly different angle (the repetitions are limited). Kate Atkinson works the minutiae and details differently each time, adding more colours to the narrative, sometimes just a detail or two, sometimes the whole "beginning" is told differently. For me it all was entirely absorbing. And what a craftsmanship!
I must admit, I felt a little bit tired towards the end with the way the story progressed, but it did not spoil my impression of "Life After Life". I think it one of the best books I read this year, profound, inventive and compelling, beautifully written by a talented author.
`Don't you wonder sometimes,' Ursula said. `If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean....surely things would be different.'
I admit I am a big fan of Kate Atkinson's writing, having read most of her previous novels, with a particular fondness for the Jackson Brodie stories, my favourite probably being `When Will There Be Good News?'. I was therefore so excited to hear about a new novel coming from her and filled with great anticipation upon starting to read.
Life After Life didn't disappoint me; I think this is a very special book in many ways. It is imbued with the sparkling prose and the dark humour that is so often evident in Kate Atkinson's works. But this book features something rather clever and wonderful in terms of the structure and storyline.
The main character, Ursula Todd is born in 1910, during a heavy snowstorm, but sadly dies immediately, there's no time for the doctor to reach her. Then we read that Ursula Todd is born in 1910 during a heavy snowstorm, and lives. She has another chance, another start at life, and this pattern, this unique quality, stays with her as she lives, and lives again, and changes the direction of her life, having chance after chance to get it just right. What a premise!
We accompany Ursula as she lives through many of the major events of the twentieth century, with her personal highs and lows recounted, then changed, as she has another chance at her life, and then another. She takes a different route, and a different course is set. Kate Atkinson writes of the personal experiences of one woman in a way that makes for compelling reading. I loved Ursula's family and thought they were also all vividly brought to life, in particular her mother Sylvie. However clever the structure, I never felt distanced from Ursula as a character, as a woman. She endures some of the hardest times, the saddest events, and the reader grows close to her and hopes for better next time.
I wasn't sure quite what to expect in terms of how this novel would work, but I gave myself time to get into the novel, through the early, often very short episodes as Ursula begins to find her way. I was soon drawn into Ursula's life, her family, the events, and I was keen to return to them every time I picked the book up, little knowing what would await me.
When Ursula lives again, sometimes very little has changed, sometimes a lot is different. There are some thrilling moments, dramatic and tragic; then the reader realises that there is another chance at the story and can breathe again - it's quite an experience reading this book. Usually after another go, things are better, but Ursula's life demonstrates that there are always hard choices, difficult relationships; there is always some sadness, even when she has had more than one chance to live through a particular time. It's a powerful and emotional experience to read this story.
This is by turns a surprising, unnerving, moving and rewarding read and it sets itself apart with a clever structure to the narrative and a distinctive main character who we live through different experiences with, over and over again, as we read. It's a fascinating and fantastic concept that really made me think as I read. What does this mean for fate? What if we could all change things, or go back and have a second chance?
on 9 May 2013
I was disappointed, mostly because the structure of the 'plot' eliminates any chance of deep characterisation of the main participant, Ursula.
There is a startlingly-vivid first chapter. After that the plot is that we are told about a variety of incidents in the lives of family members, some of which end in a death or life-changing outcomes, but which are no longer true in subsequent chapters. It's a sort of 'multiple universes with different outcomes' ........... which sounds interesting, but I felt it become irritating pretty quickly because as a reader I had no foundation, no reality. Surely good fiction should be believable, even if unlikely events occur. Consequently I even felt as though the author was playing with me. I found I was hurrying to finish.
First Sentence: A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.
Ursula is born...and dies...and is born again. Each life lasts a little longer. With some, we pick up where the previous left off. With others, she has been able to change her course and, possibly, the course of history.
Atkinson uses her unique voice to tell us a story of reincarnation, but not in the usual woo-woo sense. In fact, she does not follow the classic philosophy of reincarnation as the character of Ursula is always reborn at the same point in time as the same person. You know each life will end; you know the next life will show zen-like progression. The difference, however, is that there are times when Ursula can alter an event which will then change the course for that life.
This is no romantic fantasy; some lives are decidedly unpleasant. What the book lacked, for me, is a sense of connection. The one certain element, in real life, is that life will end. Whether there is reincarnation or eternity, we don't know and it is the not knowing which gives life import and significance. Atkinson has removed that gravitas. While this makes the reading of each life interesting, it does remove some sense of really caring about the fate of the character. What is also missing is any real sense of how Ursula's life fits in with those around her; how she impacts them, and they her.
That's not to say, one doesn't become involved. Absolutely, you do but almost in the way of watching an inevitable accident. In that, it reminded me of "The Time Traveler's Wife" as one chapter is painfully grim. In another, Ursula commits an act which could have changed world history. Unfortunately, we're given no follow-up; we have to surmise the outcome for ourselves as her life starts again.
Atkinson does provide us with a character about whose life we become curious. She creates an excellent sense of time. The pre-war and World War II years become real to those of us who didn't live them. She writes excellent dialogue. There are elements of philosophy, satire and humor, as well as introspection..."Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn't even begin to solve."
"Life After Life" is a fascinating read; it's compelling and certainly kept me reading to the end. It is intriguing and thought-provoking, occasionally grim and rather depressing, and undoubtedly not for everyone. Atkinson is an excellent author, one who ordinarily ranks among my favorites. Although I am very glad I read this book, I can't recommend it unreservedly.
LIFE AFTER LIFE (Novel-Ursula-England-1910) - Good
Atkinson, Kate - Standalone
A Reagan Arthur Book, Little, Brown and Company, 2013
on 10 March 2014
On a snowy night in 1910, Ursula is born and almost immediately dies. Then she's born again, makes a little further into childhood and dies again. Oh, I'm forgetting the previous life where she makes it to adulthood in order to be in a certain German café in the late nineteen thirties in order to have coffee and cake with a certain German politician. Confused yet? You will be. Life After Life tracks the multiple lives and deaths of a woman who lives through (or not, as the case may be) the many turbulent events of the twentieth century.
I love Kate Atkinson's style of writing and am a big fan of the Jackson Brodie books. Therefore, my utter frustration with this book (and those who manage to read the phrase 'darkness falls' for the fifteenth time and turn the page to realise that you're back in bloody 1910 again without uttering a scream have my admiration) is that the good bits are so damn good. The whole long section that examines Ursula's life (lives) during WW2 is incredibly powerful, for instance, and many of the characters are wonderfully drawn.
But.. but... it's just too damn clever for its own good. At the end of it, darkness didn't fall, but annoyance fairly swamped me.
on 4 November 2014
Ursula Todd is born at least ten times in this brilliant and haunting book, which traces her many possible lives, and those of her friends and family, throughout the first half of the 20th century. It's a bold and daring idea, and worked for me at showing the randomness and fragility of life as well as raising questions about time and experience.
It took me a little while to get into the idea, and early on, I did have a couple of instances of "uh-oh, here we go again" as the black bat escaped from Tennyson came circling in, but as I progressed through the novel, I loved the dreamlike feeling of deja-vu it gave me. I was happy not to refer back to previous chapters, wondering if I had read that before - or whether i'd merely thought it.
I'm still not sure about the sections set in Germany and the whole "killing Hitler" premise. Were these sections really necessary? They felt a bit "stuck in", less credible and at one point, I worried that the story was turning into "Black Roses", a book I didn't particularly enjoy. With good editing, I am sure that the book would have stood up well without this thread.
There are some marvellous characters in the story and a super sense of place, of a particular kind of Englishness. The repetition of the description of the grounds of Fox Corner with "the meadow, the copse and the stream that ran through the bluebell wood" and the catalogue of flowers "flax and larkspur, corn poppies, red campion and ox-eye daisies" worked like a mantra, hypnotic and evocative.
Overall, a wonderful story which I'd love to read again - in turns touching, harrowing, funny and thought-provoking. I also enjoyed the author's note at the end and forgave her the one or two tiny inaccuracies that I'd spotted!
This may sound flippant, but Kate Atkinson's latest made me think several times of both Groundhog Day and the Choose Your Own Adventure books I enjoyed as a child.
Let me clarify - I loved the book. I've never read anything quite like it. Ursula is born. And dies. Repeatedly. At different points in her life, for different reasons. And is born again. Like Groundhog Day - her life always starts on that same snowy evening. But her life takes different directions each time, and each small difference sends her off on a completely different life path.
It had me gripped when the narrative showed she had a sense of déjà vu about this reality and was remembering things from previous 'attempts' at life. This is where I felt the comparisons to my childhood reading comes in. In these books you had a choice every so often of two different paths your character could take. I used to cheat and look ahead and see which page turn looked more favourable. This is relevant to Ursula's situation too.
Ursula's story was heartbreaking at times and had me in tears. The scope of the novel is wide, and not afraid to look at Ursula's effect on even worldwide events, up from the most humdrum and personal to her effect in World War Two. She lives through both World Wars and the detail of her life is vivid and very moving.
The book is cleverly put together, where each secondary character - parents, brothers, aunts, friends - each show up as slightly different people with different lives in each of Ursula's. Atkinson expects your full attention.
It is a sad book, and one that actually also made me angry: why does THIS woman get so many chances to get it right? Why can't we all go back and start again? This theme is discussed by the characters several times as well. Then I remembered - she's not real! None of us can undo anything, just live with the consequences.
A wonderful, powerful and beautifully written and constructed novel.
on 8 August 2013
Life After Life follows a female protagonist, Ursula Tod from birth in 1910, through the different ways in which life would have unravelled if Ursula had died at various hair raising points in her life. A couple of World Wars, as well as other tragic scenarios, are involved, and you can't fault the detailed recreations of these grim times. Also intricate plotting is one Atkinson's strong points, and this skill is well put to use here to develop this complicated conceit of the different endings.
It's an interesting concept and if anyone was going to be the writer to pull it off, it would have been Kate Atkinson. However the overall result is a bit... technical. It throws the usual patterns of character development up into the air, so that while Hugh (Ursula's father), Pamela, Maurice and Teddy (the siblings) have pretty constant characteristics throughout, Ursula's mother and Ursula, for example, herself end up with some wildly varying characteristics in the different endings. This makes it difficult to identify with the main character or sympathise with her.
Some of the story branches are clearly cul-de-sacs early on in their development and go on for too long, and although I have to say that Atkinson does a good job with not making the actual gory endings too predictable, it's difficult for the reader to invest too much in a character when you know the end is nigh and a fresh one is on its way. Some of the endings too have Ursula come across as a bit passive - a litany of tragic events that propel her towards doom.
On the positive side, this will stay with you after you've finished it. Each plight of Ursula's is mapped out with Atkinson's trademark precise, almost detached prose, emphasising the catastrophic by contrasting it with the matter of fact. But it could have done with a good edit - the length of some of the sub-stories really verges on the tedious. And since the one constant, stand out thing that follows Ursula is the shadow of her alternative histories, which compels her to do the odd irrational things to avoid her fate, it would have been more involving to see more made of this.
It's worth a read because it has ambition behind it and is memorable, but it's difficult to like. It's interesting, but with a good edit, it could have been more than interesting, it could have made you feel as well as think.
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on 24 July 2014
Having read a few Kate Atkinson books this is a very different book to the others. Following the lives of the main character Ursula as she returns to the past with no memory of it, only a feeling of dread when situations have gone sour in previous times. The idea is interesting but not new.
Usually, I cannot put down Kate Atkinson books, It took three attempts to eventually get into the story. For me, there were too many returns to the past, some of the characters which could have been great weren't written about enough: Ursula's eccentric aunt, her father who seemed to fade in the background. Sylvie, the mother started as a lovely character then turns out to be quite bitter and mean.
There were too many unresolved plot lines and others not developed enough. The adult life of Ursula and the important characters she meets while she is abroad also seem improbable. (revealing too much about the plot line)
I found myself frustrated with the reading and overall hard work. However, this was very well written and there are many chapters where I could feel the nostalgia of childhood and many sweet moments between the siblings in the family. In conclusion, I liked it, but did not love it.