Julie Christine's Reviews > Life After Life

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
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it was amazing
bookshelves: best-of-2013, read-2013, british-isles-theme-setting, war-conflict

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’
‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.





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Quotes Julie Christine Liked

Kate Atkinson
“Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.”
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life


Reading Progress

February 6, 2013 – Shelved
June 26, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
September 8, 2013 – Started Reading
September 9, 2013 –
page 55
11.53% "Not certain where this story will take me, but I adore Atkinson's writing style. As always."
September 9, 2013 –
page 195
40.88% ""Everyone feels peculiar from time to time," Sylvie said. "Remember, dear--sunny thoughts." I may end up loving this book."
September 11, 2013 –
page 277
58.07% "Tempted to curl up and finish this in one go this morning, but alas... It will be my reward this evening for a good day's writing."
September 12, 2013 – Shelved as: british-isles-theme-setting
September 12, 2013 – Shelved as: best-of-2013
September 12, 2013 – Shelved as: war-conflict
September 12, 2013 – Shelved as: read-2013
September 12, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-27 of 27 (27 new)

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Julie Christine Oops, nope, sorry- back onto the shelf- library holds caught up with me!


Julie Christine Trying again!


Julie Christine Oh my. Five big bright stars. Kate, you've done it again. Swoon.


message 4: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Glad you loved it. When will the next one be out Kate?


Diane Good review, Julie. I loved this book, too!


Suzanne Excellent review, Julie. I liked it more than the book! (Nice job with the layers similes – “like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination” . . . and croissants. Mmmmmmmmm.) I liked the book, just didn’t love it. Somehow it was lacking in “soul,” which was a problem for me, especially given the subject matter. I did like and appreciate Atkinson’s writing, which was very good, the wry tone that you pointed out, and the characters. Glad you enjoyed it so much. Many people seem to agree with you.


Julie Christine Thank you, Suzanne. After my false start early in the summer, I was prepared for disappointment. I was expecting the strange/absurd plotting after scanning reviews, but I didn't expect to feel such tenderness for Ursula and (some of) her family. It's more interesting now to read through the negative reviews. Curious what gets under peoples' skins-good and bad.


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "Good review, Julie. I loved this book, too!"

Thank you, Diane!


Julie Christine Maureen wrote: "Glad you loved it. When will the next one be out Kate?"

It may just be time for a reread of the Atkinson Oeuvre :)


Michael Your cup runneth over, a lovely fountain to behold. I was taken over too, but it took awhile, and then I couldn't easily find the words to explain the magical impact of the writing on me. You tagged the charm pretty aptly with: "affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard."


message 11: by Jill (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jill Your review just blew me away, Julie. Even the pro critics haven't provided such delicious insights. You've done her justice.


message 12: by R.S. (new) - rated it 4 stars

R.S. Carter I pulled the same quote for my formal review in the papers. I really enjoyed this book, and the subtle way the author crafted a story around such a complex idea.


Suzanne Julie, you do have a wonderful talent for eloquently conveying how you feel about a book, which I really enjoy, even if I don't agree with you about the book itself. With the books I really love, I am usually reduced to sputtering in inarticulate awe and so just leave them with a plain 5-star rating. I envy your ability to share in such an expressive way that which touches you.


Julie Christine Michael wrote: "Your cup runneth over, a lovely fountain to behold. I was taken over too, but it took awhile, and then I couldn't easily find the words to explain the magical impact of the writing on me. You tag..."
Thank you, Michael. There is something effortless about Atkinson's writing that just knocks me flat. She makes it look so easy and utterly impossible. How does she do that? :)


Julie Christine Jill wrote: "Your review just blew me away, Julie. Even the pro critics haven't provided such delicious insights. You've done her justice." Oh Jill, that's a crazy-wonderful thing to say. Thank you.


Julie Christine R.S. wrote: "I pulled the same quote for my formal review in the papers. I really enjoyed this book, and the subtle way the author crafted a story around such a complex idea."

I knew the moment I read this exchange between Ursula and Kellet I'd found the key - the starting point to explain why this enchanted me so. Reading Life After Life makes me want to take on David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas again, to explore more of the Cathar belief in reincarnation and transmigration. There's something beautiful and terrifying in the rejection of an afterlife and the embrace of a never-ending life...


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "Julie, you do have a wonderful talent for eloquently conveying how you feel about a book, which I really enjoy, even if I don't agree with you about the book itself. With the books I really lo..."

This is a beautiful compliment, Suzanne. Thank you! I'm far too emotional to ever write professional reviews, but I think a more objective approach would kill my passion for reading. I want to be changed in some way, moved, angered, touched. Thank you for letting me know that I'm able to convey that passion!


Sarah Loved the book and your review. Didn't catch the fairy tale themes when I read it!


Angela I just re-read this via Audio as a precursor to "A God In Ruins". Loved it so much that I moved it to my All Time Favorites shelf. Now I am scared to start A God In Ruins- how could it even come close?


Julie Christine Angela wrote: "I just re-read this via Audio as a precursor to "A God In Ruins". Loved it so much that I moved it to my All Time Favorites shelf. Now I am scared to start A God In Ruins- how could it even come c..." I know! I can't wait. Have faith, it will be just as amazing :)


Julie Christine Sarah wrote: "Loved the book and your review. Didn't catch the fairy tale themes when I read it!" Thank you, Sarah!


message 22: by Prakash (new) - added it

S Prakash Julie, what better promotion can authors expect than lovely reviews like yours, which bring them more readers in hordes..


Julie Christine Prakash wrote: "Julie, what better promotion can authors expect than lovely reviews like yours, which bring them more readers in hordes.." Prakash, thank you! One of my favorite reviews to write!


Cinda MacKinnon I'm so glad you reviewed this. I've long wanted to write a novel about going back in time and changing decisions to offer alternate paths for one character - but could never figure out how to structure it. I can't wait to read this.


Julie Christine Cinda wrote: "I'm so glad you reviewed this. I've long wanted to write a novel about going back in time and changing decisions to offer alternate paths for one character - but could never figure out how to struc..." Oh Cinda, it's such a wonderful book. I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel, but I'm one of many in the library queue- been waiting months! If I wait long enough, it'll be in softcover and I can afford my own copy :)


Margitte Great review, Julie! Excellent!


Julie Christine Margitte wrote: "Great review, Julie! Excellent!"

Thank you, dear Margitte!


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