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531 pages, Hardcover
First published March 14, 2013
“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in---I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café...Gotta go. Damn!
I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. - from Chatelaine interviewThere have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.
“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.Yes it is.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.
"Ow!" one of the evacuees squealed beneath the table. "Some bugger just kicked me."...Something cold and wet nosed itself up Ursula's skirt. She hoped very much that it was the nose of one of the dogs and not one of the evacuees.There is whimsy and humor laced throughout this novel and it makes for a beautiful contrast to the more serious components of tragedy and war. Life is a farce after all; if you can't find the humor in it you've been doing it wrong or have missed the point entirely. Atkinson has not missed the point. As readers, we are in capable hands. She has one helluva story to tell you, and trust me, you don't want to miss it.
This knowledge of the ATS girl's background seemed to particularly infuriate Edwina, who was gripping the butter knife in her hand as if she were planning to attack someone with it--Maurice or the ATS girl, or anyone within stabbing distance by the look of it. Ursula wondered how much harm a butter knife could do. Enough she supposed.
I'm not sure I can communicate how angry this book made me and how angry I am that gave up enough of my life to read all 529 pages. I'm less mad at Atkinson, who thought she had a good idea, than I am at the idiotic book critics slobbering all over this nonsensical novel.
Many people have compared this book to the movie Groundhog Day where the main character lives the same day over and over. In Life After Life, the main character is born, lives a varying length of time, dies, and is born again. The difference between Groundhog Day and this book is that in the movie the main character learns something from living again and again. In Life After Life, the main character learns nothing. Oh, she has some vague feelings and the occasional premonition thanks to her past lives, but does she learn from one life to the next? Not really. Mostly she lives a little longer each time because she recognizes a stray dog, meets some different than she expected, and so forth. Nothing happens for any particularly discernible reason.
Until late in one storyline, our protagonist meets a very bad figure from history. Hmm, where could this end up going? The woman quickly dies in this storyline, and the book reverts back to the usual storylines without the big bad. Until suddenly in one life, after exhibiting virtually no awareness that she is being born over and over, the woman apparently realizes she is meant to take out the big bad, and suddenly decides to do so. Huh? And this critical development, apparently the point of the whole book, takes two or three pages, then she's dead again, and we're back to her being born over and over.
Why did she suddenly know what she was meant to do about the big bad? No idea. The author gives us no clue. Why is she born again after completing her apparent reason for being born. No idea. The author gives us no idea. Sh*t just happens apparently.
Kate Atkinson writes perfectly fine prose. Often its quite good, and she captures wartime England very convincingly and even gives us engaging characters. Nonetheless, this is a deeply, deeply stupid book, and I can only suggest for it people who don't give a damn about coherent plot, but are just satisfied by pretty words. Everyone else should stay away.
As she crept gingerly forward, Ursula's knee pressed on something soft and supple and she recoiled, banging her head on a broken rafter, sending a shower of dust down. . . She had once stood on a body, recognized the squashy, meat-like quality of it. She supposed she had to look, although God knows she didn't want to. . . She peeled back a layer of wool and then another one as if unwrapping a badly packed parcel or a large, unwieldy cabbage. Eventually a small almost unblemished hand, a small star, revealed itself from the compacted mass. She thought she might have found Emil. Better then that his mother was dead rather than knowing about this, she thought. "Be careful here, Mr. Emslie," she said over her shoulder, "there's a baby, try to avoid it."The ending: I thought I had it all figured out but the last few pages threw me for a loop. Spoilerish discussion time: So I just don't know.
'How gnomic,' Sylvie said stiffly.What wondrous life Ursula lead!
Dr Kellet steepled his hands an propped his chin on them. 'You know,' he said to Ursula, 'I think we shall get on very well. Would you like a biscuit?'
There was one thing that puzzled her. The photograph of Guy, lost at Arras in his cricketing whites was missing from the side table. Without meaning to - it was a question - she said to dr Kellet, 'Where is the photograph of Guy?' and Dr Kellet said, 'who is Guy?'
It seemed even the instability of time was not to be relied upon.
“Don’t you wonder sometimes, “ Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”The juxtaposition of the chapters makes one remember those times when we stare into the unknowingness of the future and wonder what it will hold for us…and once there, looking back at the innocence of the early years, when we proceeded with our lives as though we had any control at all. Which brings me to a larger observation in this novel and in Atkinson’s fiction in general: oftentimes Atkinson’s characters are not agents of change, but reagents, possibly causing a chain reaction when they are introduced, possibly having no discernible impact at all.
“Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future.”Sometimes there are exceptional people, but even they cannot escape that possibility that “one thing” could change everything. Therein lie our power, and the power of the fiction writer.