Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: May 2013

She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside become the outside. Time was out of joint, that was for certain.

She staggered to her feet but didn’t dare to look round. Ignoring the awful pain, she ran on and on. She was in Belgravia before she finally flagged completely. Here too, she thought. She had been here before. She had never been here before. I give in, she thought. Whatever it is, it can have me. She sank to her knees on the hard pavement and curled up in a ball. A fox without a hole.


Ursula Todd was born on a cold and snowy February 11 in 1910. She died before she could take a single breath, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She was born again. On February 11, 1910. This time, she was saved. She will die again, somehow, at some point, and the cycle will continue with details—both critical and inconsequential—shifting, facilitating different outcomes and different interactions between family, friends, loved ones, and the young love interest of a particularly anti-Semitic dictator.

The semi-mythical protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life has lived and died an entire country’s worth of lives. Born in Britain in a home dubbed Fox Corner, Ursula’s life is mysteriously and inexplicably touched by the hand of fate. Each time she is (re)born the deck is shuffled anew. Certain events play out in almost identical fashion in each successive stream (or universe, or timeline, or however one chooses to rationalize or not rationalize the narrative conceit), and the presence of specific individuals or details in one life might spell her end, while in another she might be saved from drowning, or from leaping from a window to her death—again, depending on which factors are present or not.

It’s an interesting premise, but one I feel was not entirely capitalized on. The very idea of multiple or repeating lives is science fiction and/or fantasy in nature, yet the tone of the book is decidedly grounded, indeed almost to a fault. As in life, many of Ursula’s deaths are not dramatic, and some causes are not even entirely clear, but it is in the small shreds of déjà vu she experiences where one hopes the story would take a quicker, more abrupt turn to embrace the elements of the fantastic it occasionally flirts with. Perhaps this is unfair and not at all what the author intended, but it is in this selection from the novel’s jacket copy where the divide between what’s teased and what’s given is most egregious:

For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its destiny? And if she can—will she?

Of course, one shouldn’t believe everything they read in advertising copy, but the relatively small amount of what’s written on the book’s jacket highlights Ursula’s potential, her dramatic, possibly history-altering purpose in a way that is not adequately paid-off in the book—at least, not until too close to the conclusion to have a strong impact. Instead Life After Life is mostly a rather provincial tale of do-overs, examining the many ways one life can change—or fail to change—the world.

It’s in this provincial British reality and its various mundane excursions and day-to-day operations that the novel’s premise unravelled for me. The details and artifice suffocate both characters and narrative flow, often grinding the story to a crawl in the middle of the book, and not picking up steam again until the section “A Long Hard War.” Some characters do stand out—Izzie, Crighton, and Teddy are the most memorable—but most are difficult to penetrate thanks to the many ways aspects of their personalities are either repeated or washed over as a new stream of life begins.

That’s not to say it’s troublesome all the way through. The inevitable death-march of war crushes all equally; it’s fascinating to see the many possibilities of one life splintered by this war that changed the face of the world. It’s also frustrating, at first, to see Ursula as less a part of history and more steamrolled by it—that is, until the last fifty to one hundred pages, when the modicum of awareness she has of her previous lives influences her to take charge and attempt to change the future of the world for the better. Only when the psychological impact of her circuitous, ouroboros-like life becomes relevant does the story feel at last as if it is coming into its own.

The novel’s unspoken thesis is not how Ursula dies, but how damaging it is to have her removed from the lives of others. When in later chapters we see the positive impact she has on those around her, it’s unsettling to go back and imagine the dark turns her family’s lives might have taken in the streams where she died young, whether from illness or spousal abuse (a particularly harrowing segment) and how her deaths might have shattered their remaining days. Life After Life is in some ways a theatre of their imaginations, as if her nearest and dearest were gathered together, speculating on the myriad ways she might have changed the world had she not died from the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck at birth, or from any one of the other ways Atkinson thought of to bring about Ursula’s untimely end.

I wanted to like Life After Life so much more than I did. The conceit is wonderful, and the novel’s structure and how it tackles multiple lives via repetition and transposition—repeating bars of the same song but in different octaves, or different keys altogether, to changing, but always deadly results—is undoubtedly unique. However, its ambition, the sheer scope of its narrative, feels lacklustre and muted. To put it in reductive terms, it was more intriguing than it was enjoyable. In the end, I must concede that I don’t feel I am this novel’s audience. I was attracted to it through the premise advertised on the book’s jacket, but feel there to be a stark divide in the tone promised and what was ultimately delivered—in short, my expectations trumped reality. Take from that what you will. This is not a bad or poorly written book by any stretch—its tone and flavour were simply not to my liking.