A baby is born in 1910, and dies before taking a breath. The same baby is born and lives, and dies again and again. Atkinson takes this central premise, and asks what if there are second chances, third, or perhaps even forth?
Life after Life is a stunning book, one that had me pondering not only during the reading of it, but long afterwards. It is a truly gripping book, which takes you backwards and forwards through time, with episodes visited from different – not quite perspectives – but sequences. For me, it was pure genius, although I imagine that the to-ing and fro-ing might leave some readers a little giddy.
The protagonist is Ursula Todd, a wholly engaging character, even though you meet different versions of her throughout Atkinson’s book. She is an Aquarius child, in that she is slightly quirky, different and is perplexed by a strong sense of ‘déjà vu’, windows on worlds that you, the reader, have visited before. The question of fate as an underlying theme is one that truly whetted my appetite, played out with the characters in the book.
These alternative lives I found gripped my attention and imagination, with each of the stories deeply felt (with one exception, more later). I think this is because of the strong characterisation, and major themes that Atkinson explores. There are strong family stories, with sibling rivalry (across two generations) and then a roll-call of others: war, illness, abortion, rape, child abuse, child abduction, death, adultery and domestic violence. Atkinson certainly does not shy from putting Ursula Todd through several Hells, which makes for a highly absorbing story.
The characters are central to the ease of engagement in Life after Life, because they matter to us. Whether it is Ursula’s beastly brother, Maurice; Ursula’s flaky mother, Sylvie or the despicable husband Derek Oliphant, Atkinson creates an arc of people that can give weight and credibility to the big issues that she choses to explore.
It is, however, painfully fantastic at times. There is a whole section where Ursula finds herself in Nazi Germany, in the social circle of Hitler. This is, for me, where the book lost ground. When I look back at it, this is the part I have edited out in my mind, but I understand why Atkinson chose to explore it – what happened if someone might have stopped Hitler before the monstrosities of the Holocaust could unfold?
The gift of Life after Life is these big themes explored by ordinary people. It is wonderfully evocative of the past, with a beauty in the vivid descriptions of the ‘small stuff’. There is a rich texture in the daily lives and routines – and this is lost somehow when Ursula moves to Germany.
Life after Life is a staggering read, and will certainly sit highly on my top list of books read in the last few years.