I didn’t want Life After Life by Kate Atkinson to ever end. Which is funny, because the heroine of this novel, Ursula Todd, who is a heroine in the true sense of the world, lives her life over and over again.
Ursula was born in 1910 to an English couple. Again and again and again. Then she dies. Again and again and again. Sometimes Ursula dies as a baby and is born again. Sometimes she dies as a child, and eventually she dies as an adult. As the book continues, Ursula lives longer, and has different experiences in each of her lives, although some events occur and re-occur regardless of the feeling of deja vu which guides Ursula through her many lives.
Ursula never quite remembers her previous lives, although she usually learns from her mistakes. Her mistakes include being taken advantage of by a friend of her brother, causing her to fall pregnant without even knowing how it happened, and marrying a bullying, cowardly wife-beater. Eventually Ursula learns how to manipulate her family and friends to achieve her ends too, for continued health and longevity for all of them.
The times Ursula live in are central to the story. Her father leaves the family to fight in the Great War, which are her formative years. During some of her lives Ursula lives in Germany between the wars and in one life, she lives in Germany during WW2. In other lives, Ursula works as an English warden during WW2 and in another, she works for the Home Office, surrounded by the people who are making the military decisions which affect the whole world. Ursula’s lives all lead her eventually to a single point, with the reader being led by the author through version upon version of Ursula’s life, waiting and watching and becoming more anxious for Ursula to take a particular action which appears to be her destiny.
The essence of Ursula’s family and friends remain much the same throughout each life she live, although her mother, Sylvie, who in some lives is a loving, tolerant mother to Ursula is in others unforgiving and cruel, which seems particularly harsh as the circumstances which govern her mother’s behaviour to her were not caused by Ursula. Sylvie is the next most interesting character after Ursula, and her attitudes and the funny things she says are generally wise and witty, in the very clever, English style of the time, reminiscent of the writings of Noel Coward and the Mitford women.
The idea of eternity always really bothers me, because, as I may have commented before, forever is a really long, long time. The thought of living my own life over and over again is intriguing though. The possibility of righting wrongs and doing things better the second or third time around is very appealing, although there are mistakes I would happily make again. Only the future would tell if I got the opportunity to make a grand gesture to change the whole world for the better, in the way Ursula did. It is far more likely that for real people that the small things count, for example the times I bite my tongue when I am tired and cross instead of snapping at my family, or do something for someone else when I would rather not.
I could not put this book down. I read it on the train to work, it tempted me all day by sitting in my handbag while I worked away at my desk living through my own version of Groundhog Day, and then I read it on the train going home. Once everyone was packed into bed a little earlier than normal, I hopped into bed and read some more. I could not wait to read the end, to find out what happened, but as I said earlier, I did not want Life After Life to actually end.
I’ve already found another Kate Atkinson book to read, Started Early, Took My Dog.