Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

“Hey Alice, I’ve read this book and I think you may like it. It’s about a girl who keeps dying and coming back to li..”

“Good day.”

“No wait, it’s better than it sounds. She is meant for something big and each time she comes back she has a sort of memory of the life bef…”

“I said good day, sir!”

Hello, and welcome to my brain, hot house for assumptions and pre-judgement. That faux conversation is a verbal formation of the thought process I had when I first heard about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I was far from amused; the cover looked girly and I feel ‘meh’ about regeneration (Doctor Who’s lame regeneration loop hole has ruined me for life). Essentially I was judging something before I had read it, and I was wrong.

I won my copy of Life After Life from Elena at Books and Reviews, in one of her fantastic Feminist Sundays posts. Do check out her blog, it’s all sorts of wonderful.

Life After Life cover“On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, 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 any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Get past the first two pages, which I literally eye-rolled at, and this is a gift that keeps on giving. Atkinson is very clever, each time I felt I was encountering a cliché or overused plot devise she did a u-turn.

Atkinson states the following at the end of my copy of Life After Life, “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about itself), but if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English. […] Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination.” But, I don’t think Atkinson gives herself enough credit. You get the general feeling that Life After Life is telling you more about WWII than demonstrating the damage to the home front. Ursula, the protagonist, travels through many lives – remembering a shadow of each. Through these various slices in times you experience several sides of the characters and of war. Disappointments, death and sadness litter them all, and ultimately you find yourself hoping that the happy ending was the last.

While set over two world wars this is a novel less about physical destruction as it is about the impact war had on English (and German) people. I think it is easy to forget what an intense and life changing experience it is to live through a war. Two generations behind a world war survivor I have little knowledge of what it is to be scared on a daily basis. I am privileged beyond belief. As time skips back and forth in Life After Life, between 1910 and different periods of time and versions of Ursula’s life, each is a demonstration of how the smallest change can affect life drastically. How living through war makes you a totally different person to the people around you who only know peace.

The only criticism I have of Life After Life is that I found it around 150 pages too long, and got to a point near the end where I was very bored. Atkinson, I feel, goes through more versions of Ursula’s life that I was ready to absorb. I found Ursula’s lives in German the most irksome, her resolve to kill Hitler uninteresting. However, this is not how the novel ends, so I was saved from disliking the novel. That, and I longed for Ursula’s older brother to be more loving, and to be loved more. There is nothing more tragic than an emotionally distant ostracised child.

Life After Life is my second Atkinson novel (I have previously read one of the Jackson Brodie series), one that I am sure will set the way for me to read and enjoy more.

7 thoughts on “Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

  1. I was surprised by how much I liked this book, too. I waited a while to read it because so many people were going on about how great it was, but ended up enjoying it. I thought that opening the book with the Hitler tease was a little weak, especially when that not ended up being the central plot of the novel, but I’m able to overlook that.


    1. Those first two pages almost put me off, but then moving on to Sylvie just fixed it all for me. I was so relieved when killing Hitler wasn’t the point of the book, epically so!


  2. Hahaha, I was the exact opposite to this. I heard the premise and thought YES PLEASE, but I didn’t love the other Kate Atkinson book I’d read, and so I resisted this. But I ended up enjoying it quite a bit too!

    (It competed against The People in the Trees in the Tournament of Books today, and lost. I am sad because it makes my TOB bracket even failier than it was before, but happy because The People in the Trees is insanely, psychotically awesome and deserves all the recognition there has ever been.)


  3. I didn’t love it and found it a bit too long as well, but I did appreciate the themes and the sections about the war. And although Ursula’s war days were very similar each time, I liked that Atkinson went on showing you the issues, the destruction from the point of view of the regular person. It was more hard-hitting than photos tend to be.


    1. I found that although slightly repetitive at times, Urlsula’s lives were different enough for me to still want to read. But, by the end I felt she had done enough. Either the Germany days should have gone or have less of her war time London lives.


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