Having read the four books in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody detective series I had high hopes for Life After Life. The Jackson Brody novels are all excellent, and the writing style is a mixture of mystery genre and contemporary fiction; these books are completely different from reading most mystery/thriller novels. Life After Life is a completely different type of novel, yet I found it equally compelling.
Life After Life starts with the birth of a baby in the early 20th Century that dies before she can even take her first breath. The same baby is born and survives to continue on the life she will eventually lead. And so, Life After Life tracks Ursula Todd through many permutations of her life, she is reborn over and over, each time a decision changed, a circumstance skewed, and therefore a new life carved into time. Born in 1910, Ursula’s many lives help to guide the reader through growing up in that time period, how it was to be a young woman in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, and living during the Second World War both in England and in Europe. The decisions she makes or the slight change of situation she is in (along with how she reacts to that situation) dictates her story to an eventual end. However, the reader does not have time to grieve for any loss as they are then thrown back into Ursula’s countless lives.
Ursula’s stories range from the ordinary to the extraordinary; and for each new life led the reader does not necessarily go back to the beginning to start over. Different times throughout her life are visited and revisited in order to intervene into Ursula’s life and to start the story over again. Every time there is a familiarity within the text – the events that occur to skew Ursula’s life are either described within the narrative or referred to in the past; this allows the reader to build up a timeline map in their head to help pinpoint which Ursula they are discovering. Kate Atkinson has managed to bind these threads together in a way that makes the novel so readable. Life After Life is constantly intriguing, often surprising, and never predictable. Ursula is a kind, compassionate woman that in some lives is also confident and veracious – at other times during the book this confidence is knocked back so she is timid. Regardless of which Ursula you are currently spending time with, you are always on her side, wishing her happiness and a longevity that you know cannot last.
Beneath the writing and the story is a novel that is beautiful, a novel with great characters that I wanted to know as much about as possible.* Ursula’s parents, aunt, and siblings are the constant throughout an ever changing novel. Their lives through the time period covered rarely falter and this helps the reader. The characters are believable throughout helping the reader to become immersed in the world the author has created.
Life After Life is a bold book with some very good ideas that all hang neatly from the central theme. The premise and how it is dealt with could so easily have become laborious or overly complicated, but Atkinson has crafted this novel quite wonderfully to make it interesting, readable, and highly enjoyable. I was gripped by the multiple stories and found myself thinking of the book both in between reading it and also after I had finished. I also found the book very emotional, certain parts of the book shocked me, and one particular scene had me in tears and I couldn’t read on until the next day. Coupled with this though was a subtle humour throughout and a clear lean towards the ironic. Life After Life is a fantastic read and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
If you have read Life After Life you may like:
- Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
- One Day by David Nicholls
- Day by A.L. Kennedy
*Kate Atkinson’s next novel, A God in Ruins, is to be published in May 2015 and follows Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula.