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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Life After Life: Will We Ever Get It Right?

Ursula Todd drowns. She falls off an icy roof. She catches influenza. And that's all within the first 50 pages. The premise of Kate Atkinson's Life after Life, a really smart, inventive novel, is that Ursula Todd, born to an upper class English family on a snowy night in February 1910 keeps dying, but then gets to live her life over and over again.

The central question of the novel is this: If we get infinite chances to get it right, will we ever actually get it right? We follow Ursula through childhood, and then several different scenarios of her teen years — including one that is very traumatic. Then we follow her through several different scenarios of adulthood — once she gets married, mostly she doesn't. Once, she lives in pre-war Germany, but mostly she's in England dodging bombs during the German Blitz of London during World War II.

This constant re-starting of the story may sound like it could read to a confusing or repetitive reading experience, but Atkinson is very good at orienting you in time and giving you clues to figure out what has changed and what has stayed the same, so she doesn't have to start from scratch each time. It's what makes the novel work, when it could've easily been a disaster.

One of the main themes of the novel is the characters' vastly different views on marriage. Ursula's mom Sylvie, who is kind of a cranky, cynical woman throughout the novel, sees marriage as a necessary evil. And that influences Ursula in different ways in different versions of her life throughout the novel. Ursula's Aunt Izzie, the polar opposite of Ursula's mother, and a huge influence on Ursula as well (she always bailing Ursula out of tight spots) has a vastly different view on marriage. Izzie tells Sylvia: "For me, marriage is about freedom. For you it has always been about the vexations of confinement."

Another noteworthy theme is Atkinson's take on how life imitates art for these characters. Characters, Ursula especially, are constantly thinking about quotes by Shakespeare and Shelley and Donne and Keats and other poets and writers. I loved that idea in this novel — as your life is constantly unmoored, art can be a settling influence. As one example that most everyone will recognize, "The Reich, Ursula had concluded a long time ago, was all pantomime and spectacle, "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, she wrote to (her sister)."

Though I really enjoyed it, the novel's not perfect — despite the fact that the last third is all about war, and therefore should be "exciting," I thought the novel kind of limped to the end. Ursula seems to need a justification for killing Hitler — that's not a spoiler, she actually does that within the first two pages of the novel. So we have to see her deal with the hardships of war. And while Atkinson certainly does an admirable job of portraying the horrors of war, it's these sections that seem more repetitive than at any other point of the novel.

But the middle third is riveting — as page-turny as any literary novel you'll find. So I'd highly recommend this. It's certainly not a "soft-around-the-edges" literary novel as the cover art may indicate.

One final note. This is a quote from the novel that has stuck with me, both for its profundity and the fact that it really hit home: "Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum she couldn't even begin to solve."


5 comments:

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    1. Nice - I think a lot of readers identify with that quote!

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  2. I loved the same quote :)

    When I started this I was afraid that it was going to read too gimmicky..nope. I really liked it a lot.

    Fab review!

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    1. Yeah, gimmicky was my worry, too - but she nailed it. The life after life strategy combined with that time period was really fertile ground for a fascinating story.

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  3. Loved this book; I was afraid it would be repetitive and boring to keep re-starting Ursula's life, so I was pleasantly surprised that Atkinson managed to tell the beginning of Ursula's story differently each time. It was actually the page-turniest book I've read this year!

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