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4.0 out of 5 stars
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4.0 out of 5 stars
Life After Life
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 May 2017
A little confusing at first, but one soon gets the idea: this is telling the several lives of Ursula Todd – each life being cut short by her death, and starting all over again until she meets a different kind of death. That’s quite an ingenious idea, though I have to say that in the end, apart from the ingenuity, I could not see the point of it. Ursula does not learn anything from her previous lives and does not try to avoid situations such as those that led to her deaths. She does frequently have a sense of déja vu, when she remembers with terror some of the moments before her previous deaths; and in one of her lives she is sent to a psychiatrist in the hope that he could cure her of her anxieties. The psychiatrist is interested in Buddhism and mutters something about reincarnation; and once in a while some of the characters muse about how differently things would have turned out if some event had or had not happened. These occasional reflections are meant to be keys to the idea behind the book. Even so, the novel just seems to be made up of some dozen novellas.

The effect of this device is that the reader will wonder all the time how each life is going to end. For me the result was that, for all the quality of the writing, whether humorous or terrifying, I was initially somewhat impatient reading about what happened before each death. Not always, though, especially not in the later, longer chapters (there is a great variety in length) when the scenes in Ursula’s life, unrelated to the deaths at the end, are so well done that I would forget thinking about the inevitable end.

Kate Atkinson skilfully evokes the changing atmosphere of England between 1910, when Ursula was born and 1967 when she met the last of her deaths. (I make it twelve or possibly thirteen deaths altogether.) Atkinson is particularly good at evoking what England was like during the two World Wars and their after-effects. A major part of the novel is set in London during the air raids of the 1940s, with lengthy descriptions of grimly graphic scenes. They are so vividly described that one imagines Kate Atkinson must have experienced such raids; but she was born six years after the end of the Second World War; and she tells us in an Epilogue how she learnt what it was like.

There are equally vivid descriptions of air raids on Berlin, for Ursula also spent part of one of her lives in Nazi Germany. She had visited it in 1933 during what was to be a year abroad (though elsewhere, near the end of the book, her visit was in 1930, before Hitler came to power; and in that version of her life she would really have changed the course of world history). The daughter of the Bavarian family where she lodged in 1933 had been at Kindergarten with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; and Ursula was frequently up in Berchtesgaden and observed Hitler’s way of life there. In that life Ursula married a German, took German citizenship and had a little daughter. In that life, she is in Germany all through the war.

The sequence of the deaths is, disconcertingly to me, not chronological. The first death recorded is in 1930, when Ursula is 20 years old; this is followed by the earliest four deaths, which are between 1910 and 1918, when she was still a child. In those chapters we get little idea of what Ursula (unlike her hyperactive elder brother Maurice who will grow up to be a rather dislikeable character) was like. The fifth death suddenly takes us to 1947; then it’s 1923, and so on. In some lives, terrible and/or sad things happen to Ursula: in one life, she has a quite horrendous marriage to a violently abusive man. Dreadful things happen also to other characters in the book. A few of them die in one of Ursula’s lives, but are still alive in another, later, life of hers.

One of the features of the novel are the many quotations from literature.

The book is very long. As in her earlier novel, “Behind the Scenes in the Museum” (see my Amazon review), there is far too large a cast of characters whom one tries to remember, although many of them turn out to be quite marginal; and even some of those who play a bigger role are not really developed as characters. But Ursula’s father, Hugh, is a lovely man; while her bourgeois mother, Sylvie, becomes steadily less likeable as the story proceeds. Another vivid character is that of Ursula’s modern and irresponsible aunt Izzie.
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on 29 April 2017
I thought this was a brilliant book. The idea is not entirely original, but the way the different 'lives' were interwoven entranced me. And of course it is beautifully written, as usual with Kate Atkinson, with a wonderful blend of humour and pathos. she has a gift for capturing a character, an event, a trivial detail or a whole era in just a few well-chosen words. The book has stayed in ly mlind several weeks after finishing it. A great read!
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on 15 June 2013
A woman lives her life over and over again. Some of her lives take unexpected turns, but most of them are only slightly different, although small differences produce big changes. At the start, it was difficult to know where this book was leading, but Kate Atkinson is my favourite living writer, and I knew that she wouldn't take me anywhere I didn't want to go. Only a writer at the height of her powers could handle this material so flawlessly, but this is more than a bravura performance, rather it is a profound exploration of what determines the outcomes of someone's life. This doesn't have the narrative drive of some of her other books, but the power is in the breadth and depth of the writing. The fact that the central character is a rather ordinary woman adds to the power. I read long into the night to finish it, then I couldn't sleep for thinking about the amazing work of literature it had been my privilege to read. Simply brilliant.
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on 8 September 2017
A great novel, as you would expect from such an acclaimed author. I love her style of writing and in Life after Life, Kate Atkinson delivers! It has elements of all emotions, sadness, often funny, wry and thoughtful. Her ability to rewrite one main characters history over and over may not suit all readers, but definitely a novel worth reading. I loved it!
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on 21 March 2014
I enjoyed this book, I liked the experimental nature of its construction up to a point. The characters, especially the main protagonist is engaging and I enjoyed the 'what if' spin offs of the narrative. I also thought all the period detail was brilliant. I was interested to read that Kate Atkinson says the book is about being British and I could identify with that theme throughout. However I do think ultimately that I prefer a more definite story, I want to know which decisions the writer made not all the ones she could make. This in the end stopped my loving the book as I have all her other books.
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on 24 June 2017
Very clever and an interesting take on the randomness of life. This wasn't too difficult to follow as there is only a small cast of characters, and their links to the parallel lives are well made. The stories are interesting. I found the novel kind of run out of steam at the end.
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on 18 September 2015
Loved reading this one.
The characters and the plot becomes more and more delightful with every repeating life. Reminded me of this short story about walking down a street and falling into a hole, again and again, until you learn how to avoid the hole. And then you walk down another street and fall into another hole.
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on 2 June 2014
I read this book at least three years ago, before it was a best seller. I loved it then and I loved it again now, when I retread it. If only it were true refers to the way the past and the future can change in an instant and all one's preconceptions fall away and disintegrate in a shower of stars. What actually happened? I don't know. It doesn't matter, but it is totally satisfying. I really wish real life was the same.
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on 22 August 2017
Thoroughly enjoyed this book - an intriguing story of the many (imagined) lives of Ursula Todd and the different outcomes of each. I so enjoyed this book I am going to read more of Kate Atkinson's books!
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on 19 February 2017
I was so disappointed when I finished this book, I could have read it forever. I was dubious when I read the synopsis, but I love Kate Atkinson's other books and it was another amazing achievement by this author.
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