Miss Woolf was very fond of children, her only regret in life was not having had any. “If Richard had lived, perhaps…but one cannot look backward, only forward. What has passed has passed forever. What is it Heraclitus says? One cannot step in the same river twice?”
“More or less. I suppose a more accurate way of putting it would be ‘You can step in the same river but the water will always be new.”
“You’re such a bright young woman,” Miss Woolf said. “Don’t waste your life, will you? If you’re spared.” – from Life After Life
Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910. And dies. And is born again. And begins her life. And dies. And is born again. And again. And again. It seems that Ursula has been gifted with the ability to relive her life, correct past mistakes, and potentially save the world from its ultimate fate.
Sounds odd? Well, yes. And no. Life After Life is the newest novel by Kate Atkinson and it is original, mind-numbing, and brilliantly conceived. The book begins in 1910 and spirals out through the twentieth century, encompassing the horror of WWI and the devastation of WWII. Set in England, the landscape is starkly defined by the impact of war. Ursula grows up in the country, surrounded by her siblings, and watched over by her parents who suspect that Ursula is a bit unusual. As Ursula meets her demise and gets to start over again, she at first seems only vaguely aware of her chance to live her life anew. But as the novel unspools, Ursula, as well as the reader, begins to recognize the advantages of this kind of life.
Life After Life is filled with wonderfully constructed characters such as Ursula’s Aunt Izzie whose personality clashes humorously with that of Ursula’s mother Sylvie; and Ursula’s sister Pamela who keeps birthing boys, but wishing for girls; and the incorrigible Maurice (one of Ursula’s brothers), as well as loveable Teddy (another brother). There are quirky townspeople, a number of “love interests” for Ursula, and even a serial killer. And as the Germans march across Europe and drop bombs on London, there is Hitler himself along with his girlfriend, Eva – two historical characters who Ursula meets in person.
Atkinson’s writing is flawless, darkly comic, and filled with a poignant insight into what makes us human.
Who among us has not wondered about the small choices we have made which steer us down a path we might otherwise not have found ourselves traveling? For Ursula, those choices can be modified and her destiny changed (maybe). Her journey is one of joy and despair, filled with laughter and tears, and confounding and profound.
Life After Life is one of those rare novels which becomes stronger after the reader has turned the final page: questions form, insights develop, character motivations become more clear. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Readers who want to be dazzled and surprised and who appreciate originality will want to read this novel.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was short listed for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction.