I have been meaning to write about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life since I picked up and read the book in April. In the few months before the book came out, a few early reviews compared the book to Emma Forrest’s Your Voice in My Head, not in terms of content or feel, but because of the way both books completely immerse a reader into their stories. I loved Forrest’s book (and can’t wait for the movie adaptation), and so Life After Life was on my radar for a few months before it came out, even though I actually haven’t read any of Atkinson’s books before.
Life After Life is about Ursula Todd, a woman with infinite lives and life choices, all of which play out in the nearly 500-page book. Ursula is born in 1910 in England, and then she is born again and again and again, always returned back to that same snowy night of her birth. I’m not sure exactly how many different threads of her life do eventually play out, but they are alternately long, sprawling stories and short, terse ones, all of them encapsulating a version of her life that stems from the different choices that she makes again and again. It took me a handful of stories to get the rhythm and routine of how life works for Ursula Todd: once she dies, she is returned right back to the night of her birth in 1910, and lives through it again. Her death comes at birth, in childhood, in adolescence, and in adulthood. Each time she gets just a little bit further, and the reader is give a longer glimpse of another version of her life. For example, when Ursula is an adolescent she relives the same event over and over again: the Spanish flu picks off various members of her family until her subconscious makes her find a way to life through it.
It is this idea of Ursula’s “subconscious” that I loved. As she lives through her lives, over and over again (yet separately), she does not acknowledge any remembrance for what has happened before. For example, she does not learn from a past event in order to make it happen differently the next time it comes around. However, there is a sense of déjà vu that pervades her several lives, a sense of something deep inside herself that causes her to make decisions that alter her course of life from how it was before. There is a great version of her life that places her in an insane asylum, as all of her many lives lived finally overwhelm her and lead to an incredibly exhaustion from living them all.
As well, her 1910 birth date places Ursula in a position to live through two world wars, which provides Atkinson with much material for writing while also examining just what it means to live life over and over again, if living it means a constant experience of WWI and WII. It is interesting to watch Ursula experience the wars, and to see how one small decision can lead to either her death, or to her life progressing further. At one point she is even transported to Germany because of one childhood decision, and rather than experiencing WWII on British soil, she lives through it in Germany.
Life After Life examines the way a life is lived, and the way choices can change that life completely. Atkinson’s secondary characters are also present in every iteration of Ursula’s life, and they change or don’t change in just as interesting ways (Ursula’s brother Maurice is always horrible, no matter what the situation). Atkinson builds a world for Ursula, and then sees her exploring every inch of that world, and every choice provided for her there, and any future available.