On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. Read more...
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More About Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonOverview"What if you could live again and again, until you got it right? "
- A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.
Does Ursula's apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can -- will she?
Darkly comic, startlingly poignant, and utterly original -- this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best.
Publishers Weekly Reviews
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-01-21
- Reviewer: Staff
Atkinson’s new novel (after Started Early, Took My Dog) opens twice: first in Germany in 1930 with an English woman taking a shot at Hitler, then in England in 1910 when a baby arrives, stillborn. And then it opens again: still in 1910, still in England, but this time the baby lives. That baby is Ursula Todd, and as she grows up, she dies and lives repeatedly. Watching Atkinson bring Ursula into the world yet again initially feels like a not terribly interesting trick: we know authors have the power of life and death. But as Ursula and the century age, and war and epidemic and war come again, the fact of death, of “darkness,” as Atkinson calls it, falling on cities and people—now Ursula, now someone else, now Ursula again—turns out to be central. At heart this is a war story; half the book is given over to Ursula’s activities during WWII, and in its focus on the women and civilians usually overlooked or downplayed, it gives the Blitz its full measure of terror. By the end, which takes us back to that moment in 1930 and beyond, it’s clear that Atkinson’s not playing tricks; rather, through Ursula’s many lives and the accretion of what T.S. Eliot called “visions and revisions,” she’s found an inventive way to make both the war’s toll and the pull of alternate history, of darkness avoided or diminished, fresh. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management. (Apr. 2)BookPage Reviews
Multiplying life's twists and turns
Kate Atkinson’s remarkable, and vastly enjoyable, new novel requires a reader on ball bearings—someone capable of turning with every plot variation and yet able to stay balanced through the incredible twists that must occur when a fictional character takes a dozen or so chances to get life right.
We have all read books about going back in time, but in Life After Life, time finally catches up with Ursula, the English schoolgirl who relives her life over and over, both in England and in Nazi Germany, mostly during the Second World War. Each variation may constitute her best shot yet (or not), no matter how many times she has to repeat it. And every time you think, by golly, she’s got it—the author knows better.
Plot summation here is difficult, because it changes at the drop of a bomb. (And incidentally, the descriptions of the London Blitz are the best—the most realistic—that this reader has ever read, bringing home the horrifying details of death out of the sky as nothing else in fiction has before.) One might think that Atkinson’s technique of ending Ursula’s story and then starting it over would be too confusing or tedious to stay with very long, but no such thing happens. The cast of characters varies slightly from existence to existence, and the alternate histories with a multitude of endings cast their own spell. Still, it helps that most characters stay dependably the same; there are slight variations in individual personalities, but the main individuals stay fairly faithful to their past and future personas. It’s the events that vary.
Edinburgh author Atkinson has won Britain’s Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and has published a collection of short stories and seven previous novels, four of them starring Jackson Brodie, a former police inspector turned private investigator. She deals with harder questions here (“what if there was no demonstrable reality?”) and arrives at few general answers—but the process and the plotline are gripping.
You might think that humor wouldn’t fit in such a scenario, but Atkinson’s very dry, very British wit adds to the story without interfering with its serious trajectory. Darkness so often descends—but life goes on. Which may or may not be comforting, but surely forms the premise of an absorbing novel you will want to finish before the next darkness descends.