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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 4 June 2017
"Life after life" is the kind of book you hope to encounter whenever you pickup a novel for the first time. I had read the follow up "A god in ruins" not knowing what to expect and was engrossed in that novel to the extent that there was a sharp intake of breath when I ultimately got to the end. . Whilst this book covers the fate of the same family and even covers much of the same time line, both can be read on their own. However, having read either of the two, there is a fair chance of wanting to read the other. Intriguingly, there are little elements within this first volume which I cannot recall getting answered in the second and I would be very keen to read a third novel about the Todd family.

Simply put, this novel takes the notion of having different possibilities open to you throughout life and puts the main protagonist in amongst a wealth of alternatives, the principle storyline looking at the Second World war through both an English and German perspective. The idea may seem too eccentric to work but Kate Atkinson pulls the ideas off with aplomb.

For me, there are two elements of great story telling. There first is to create such strong characters that we know who they are when speaking because their voices come out so strongly in the dialogue. All the characters in this book are terrific , whether it is the flaky Irish housemaid Bridget or my particular favourite, the incorrigible aunt and authoress, Izzy who surely deserves a book of her own. The other component is having the sensation of being plunged in to a world where the people and places seem real and who you feel sad to leave behind when you finish the book.

Kate Atkinson has tapped in to something truly wonderful in this book and whilst both this and "A God in ruins" ultimately reveal a more shocking face of 20th century life than initially supposed in the two differing accounts of the Second World War from the perspective of both the bomber and the bombed, there seem enough potential in the little world she has created to make another visit to Fox Corner highly desirable. This is a fantastic novel.
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on 2 April 2017
The strapline for the book asks the question: "What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?", leading me to believe that the answer would lie somewhere in its pages. If it does, perhaps I missed it, because I finished the book feeling like it was unanswered and, not just unanswered, but also that I'd been taken on a wild goose chase to find that answer. About a week of post-book mulling later, the feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment remain.

Which is a shame, as there are some lovely moments of writing and life here. I found it an easy-to-read writing style that's harrowing, amusing and movingly poignant in places; the rest of the time felt a lot like waiting for the really good bit to happen, and it never did.
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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 3 March 2017
Mixed feelings about meta-fiction, but this novel is undeniably very clever. Loved it even though I would recommend you read the two books in the correct order (which I didn't!) leave A God in Ruins til after this one.
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What would you do if you could relive your life over and over again. This book is based around the life of Ursula Todd, where fate and family ties mould her life. With every turn, fate intervenes whether it be for the greater good or the worst scenario possible. An interesting read based around the build up of war and life afterwards. As a reader you are left questioning, can you really make amends or is life just one vicious circle?
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on 24 March 2014
Loved Atkinson's writing as usual and her gift for constructing believable characters does not fail. There are some really superb characters throughout this book.
About a third of the way through I was thinking this would only be a four star book because I thought the idea was just a bit too clever and the narrative started to drag, but then it picked up again and rather than being confused I was drawn into the story. The description of London in the Blitz feels very real. Thoroughly recommended.
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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 9 April 2017
Book was in excellent condition.
Hard work reading as switches back and forth, not an easy read.
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