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Life After Life
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 July 2014
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.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 13 May 2014
"What if we had a chance to do it again and again," Teddy said, " until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
"I think it would be exhausting"

This is a novel about 'what ifs', based on a central conceit: just how would your life turn out if you'd done one thing differently? Even a small thing, like taking a different route home, could have huge repercussions.
The novel opens with a big one - what if you'd shot Hitler in 1930? Then, after a scene in which she never lives at all, our heroine Ursula is re-born over and over again in a series of alternative narratives of varying length, stretching from 1910 to 1967. Sometimes it's fanciful - she's plagued throughout by visions of alternative scenarios - but most of the stories are straightforward accounts: when she's allowed to grow up, she becomes the battered wife of a dull schoolteacher, a homesick housewife in 1930s Germany (and an unlikely friend of Eva Braun), a childless ARP warden during the London blitz.
Unfortunately, this is a particularly clunky example of one of my pet hates: a novel written to illustrate an idea. For me, it's a blindingly obvious one - yes, if you make different decisions then all sorts of different things can happen - that's never developed in enough depth to be satisfying. It's a cut-and-paste job, hardly subtle, far too wide-ranging, and the use of repetitive phrases, like 'darkness falls' every time Ursula dies, is more pretentious than poetic.
And amidst all the too-clever-by-half hopping about in time there were two things that really jarred.
Firstly, at one point, 16 year old Ursula is propositioned by one of her brother's friends. In one version, she's too shy and horrified to prevent a rape that blights her entire life. In another, she just kicks him where it hurts and laughs it off. So it's not just about making a different decision, it's about having a different character, then?
And secondly, that cheesy happy ending in 1945. What conclusion are we meant to draw? Was it all about saving brother Teddy, who seems to represent some idea of home and England? If so, why didn't she develop his character more?
The frustrating thing is that Kate Atkinson can write, and every single scenario could have been expanded into a decent novel. All credit to her for trying something different, but this is a book that just doesn't work.
For one that does, with some similar themes, try Sarah Waters' The Night Watch.
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174 of 184 people found the following review helpful
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.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 25 June 2014
I am SUCH a Kate Atkinson fan and have devoured, adored and re-read everything she has written before. So, it was with a sense of fevered anticipation I launched into 'Life After Life' especially after reading the corking endorsements and quotations from literary greats and critics.

But I actively disliked it and it left me completely cold. Whilst the central idea of Ursula's being born, making decisions about her life, dying and being re-born to make different decisions is fantastic, for me personally, it just didn't work. I found myself unable to identify with Ursula as a complex, rounded character and so I didn't really care what happened to her. There was no sufficient link or context for me before we got to each crucial decision that would lead to her death this time round and so I hadn't engaged emotionally with her journey. So I didn't care. The characters around her were one dimensional ciphers - only there to provide a backdrop for her next death and so I didn't believe in or engage with any of them. The section in Germany was the weakest for me and the one I had most interest in and hope for initially - but it just was not convincing at all. The best parts were concerning the Blitz which were beautiful, moving and illuminating descriptions of an event most of us know very little about and I found myself thoroughly engaged with those section.

I appear to be in a very small club of people who did not enjoy this; I think Kate Atkinson is a fabulous writer but this is not typical of her style (I missed the hilarious, colourful, brilliantly drawn characters, breathless pace and fantastic storytelling). I can't remember when I was last so disappointed.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 29 August 2014
Read this after reading the Brodie books recommended by my wife and finding them well written and mildly entertaining, Well, I persevered and got to the end but wish I hadn't as I now realise I've spent a period of my life which could have been spent happily elsewhere. The episodic nature of the story has been well covered in other 'poor' reviews so there is no need to repeat here therefore, I'll restrict my comments to the following: There are a host of research references at the end of the book which confirm my feeling that Ms Atkinson was desperate to put in as many of them as she could but one starts doubting the veracity of the transition when we read about 'the British bombing Germany by day and the Americans by night' when, in fact, it was the other way round. Having read R F Delderfield's 'The Dreaming Suburb' and 'The Avenue Goes to War' I couldn't help the feeling that chunks of them had been cleverly plagiarised in this book; especially the characters. I think the most irritating part for me, and perhaps only me having been born in 1947, and having some interest in the experiences of my parents during the war was the almost patronising factual content interspersed in the story. It was as though Ms Atkinson had only just discovered this information and was desperate to spread the revelation to the unknowing masses. Finally, I wasn't sure whether the author was caricaturing the Todd family or genuinely trying to portray what family life was like for the middle classes.
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307 of 330 people found the following review helpful
`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?
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53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
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.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
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.
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152 of 166 people found the following review helpful
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
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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!
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