It is an incredible novel.
In 1910, a baby is born, and dies at birth. In 1910, the same baby is born, and lives through her first moments. In fact, every time Ursula Todd dies, she is reborn, with some vague sense of her previous lives hanging over her. So we follow Ursula through the First and Second World Wars, through the first half of the twentieth century, somehow both stuck to history and outside of it, because she can change her own. With her half memories, she manages to undo her mistakes, and avoid the mistakes of others towards her. We sit with her as she dies death after death, and lives life after life after life.
The premise is astounding. It is an incredible and wonderful idea. The structure, the idea – they’re just brilliant. Rather than describing the whole details of Ursula’s many lives, Atkinson is a master of scenes. She offers us snapshots, one month of a year or two, at times managing to communicate what has happened in well over thirty years in just one scene. It’s brilliantly clever. The scenes of Ursula’s lives that we do witness are unfailingly beautifully written and almost self-contained. We understand characters that only appear for a few pages, in just one of Ursula’s lives. The motif of death of eventually symbolised simply by the word ‘darkness’, and is immediately turned upside down by the bright white snow surrounding Ursula’s birth, as she begins again.
What perhaps most impressed me after Life After Life is that it is both entirely impossible and yet never fails to feel astoundingly real. Atkinson brilliantly captures the sense of history, of time. Ursula’s experiences of the London blitz, of Nazi Germany, of the interwar period, of work, relationships, life and death – they all feel staggeringly real, every single time. The blitz scenes where Ursula is a warden are some of the most harrowing and most brilliantly written in the novel. The atmosphere created and the description offered genuinely does (apologies for the cliché) make you feel like you’re actually standing in London in the middle of the Second World War.
Every character in Life After Life feels 3D. Ursula is an impressive creation, and all the more impressive because she is, naturally, a little different in every life she leads. Atkinson captures her childhood brilliantly, but she also manages to create an almost seamless transition between Ursula’s childhood and her adulthood; she feels like the same person, at all ages, in all lives, and yet you get to see different sides of her unlocked by her various experiences.
Nor is Ursula the only great character. I loved Teddy, Hugh, Izzy, Pamela, Miss Woolf, Bridget, and more. I like that although a lot of the characters only appear a few times, they still all feel real, whole, human. The relationships between the characters do too, and I especially like Ursula’s relationships her siblings. Teddy’s simply lovely, and Maurice’s characterisation is hilarious. It feels, I suppose, as though Atkinson has put a lot of work into every single character, whether they’re central to the plot or just there for a few pages. It’s beautiful to read. You never get quite enough details about, say, Sylvia, to know everything about her, but you’re given enough clues (in various lives) to piece her character together. There is a sense of her existence beyond the words on the page. Even Derek Oliphant is human, because although you have to hate him you also sort of understand this awful unstable person, trying to escape from his own instability and violence, and picking completely the wrong person to help him do so.
Life After Life is an incredibly moving novel. It is dark and lovely all at once, and although often sad it never fails, to me, to be beautifully sad, if only because the writing is so good and the characters so well-developed. I like that it deals with so many complex themes – touching on life, love, death, Englishness, war, choice, fate, turning points, the what ifs of history – and yet the plot, the characters, and above all the lives, I suppose, of Ursula, are always placed to the fore. It is as though the whole novel is at its heart an examination of what a different one momentary decision can make to a life. Everything is a mix of fate and choice.
The only flaw, I suppose, of the novel’s wonderful premise, is that a story based on eternal reincarnation doesn’t really lend itself to an ending. But I actually I sort of like this fact. It felt like we were just peering into a few or Ursula’s many many lives, and that there were all sorts of things happening in all the rest of her lives that we would never know about. The ending isn’t perfect, but this premise, while absolutely genius, isn’t the best for endings. Still, this doesn’t lessen my love of the novel at all.
In short, I wanted to read this book forever, which is probably a good thing considering it is over seven-hundred pages long. Although, saying that, it never felt like a long book. The writing is consistentyly both engaging and easy to read. I especially like Atkinson’s mixture of dialogue and prose in conversation; it simply works. This novel is always fascinating, always readable, and always unfailingly brilliant.
Please excuse me while I go and buy every book Kate Atkinson has ever written and mourn over the fact that I will never be as great a writer as her.
Greatest strength: Oh, probably everything. But the premise of the novel is simply superb. It’s sheer strength of the central idea, I think, which moves the novel from great to absolutely brilliant.
Greatest weakness: As I already said, a novel about reincarnation is never going to lend itself entirely to endings. But this isn’t a criticism really, just a comment, because I don’t think it could have been ended any better. I genuinely can’t think of a way this novel could be improved.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘What if we had a chance to do it again and again,’ said Teddy, ‘until we did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’
‘I think it would be exhausting.’
Next week: Rites by Sophie Coulombeau