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Book review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Reviewed by Kathleen Keenan

What would you do differently if you had the chance to live your life over again? Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s gripping new novel Life After Life, faces this unusual question. Every time she dies — the first time shortly after her birth, umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, on a snowy night in 1910 — she is reborn. As she grows up over and over again, she has the chance to fix her past mistakes and even alter the course of history.

Aside from this quirk, Ursula seems to live a fairly normal life with her parents and siblings in the English countryside. As she grows up, she drowns, falls off a roof, and is even beaten to death — but she is always born again on the same cold winter night with faint memories of her previous life. Thanks to these memories, she is able to change her decisions and subtly alter her own fate.

As the twentieth century marches on through disease and two world wars, Ursula finds herself living in London. In one life, she marries a schoolteacher and endures a quietly desperate existence. In another, by far the strongest section of the book, she works to excavate bomb sites during the Blitz. These chapters are vividly and meticulously observed accounts of wartime London.

Kate Atkinson

Although these wartime chapters are heartrendingly detailed, another, too-long section of the novel, set in Germany during the build-up to the Second World War, is a rare misstep for Atkinson. Somewhat improbably, Ursula befriends Eva Braun while studying in Germany, and is drawn into Hitler’s inner circle. But soon enough, Ursula dies and is born again in Fox Corner, the cozy Todd family home.

The plot of Life After Life would certainly be a confusing mess in the hands of a writer less skilled than Atkinson. Chapters and sections end on a sudden fade-to-black with no resolution, only leading to another birth. But thanks to Atkinson’s assured prose, the novel’s endlessly new narrative is thrilling rather than maddening. The question of where Ursula will end up next — and whether she will fulfil the promise of the novel’s prologue, which sees her in a German café aiming a gun at Hitler — propels the novel forward even as Atkinson continually restarts the plot.

Atkinson, perhaps best known for her series of mysteries featuring Jackson Brodie, adapted for television in 2011 as Case Histories, is an immensely gifted writer. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year award. Like that novel, Life After Life centres on a family and the rhythms of domestic life. Ursula’s siblings — from her boorish oldest brother Maurice to Teddy, everyone’s favourite — and their interactions are compellingly realistic. Yet after Ursula’s first death, a prevailing sense of dread hangs over even the novel’s early chapters, lending the later sections set during the war a grim inevitability.

And like the Jackson Brodie novels, which are shelved in the mystery section but shine with ambiguity and humanity, Life After Life is not easy to categorize. The novel’s science-fiction-worthy premise complements the disturbing events of the early twentieth century particularly well, but the immediacy of Atkinson’s prose belies the novel’s status as historical fiction. With Life After Life, she adds to her enviable backlist a novel of great intelligence and narrative complexity — not to mention a story with many possible endings, all left to the reader to determine.

(Doubleday Canada / 480 pgs / April 2013 / CDN$29.95 in hardcover)

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