Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterI already know this is going on my Top 10 Books of the Year. It was amazing! Wonderful! Terrific! Captivated me! Seriously, I really loved this. And you know what? Before I even get to the story that so entranced me, let me just say that the writing was really beautiful and top-notch.  I had read a couple of her other books, which I really liked, but don’t remember noticing so much what a good writer she is. In this novel it was evident from the overall construction, the phrases, and the liberal sprinkling of quotations from literature.

The story is about a baby girl named Ursula and explores all the different paths her life could take. Born with the umbilical cord around her neck, what would happen if the doctor didn’t arrive in time? The baby dies. The story starts again and this time he’s there to snip the cord away.  So we follow that baby Ursula in her childhood. A seaside excursion as a little girl ends in drowning and the story starts again. This time she’s rescued and we read a little further into her girlhood.  It’s somewhat troubling that you know you are growing to care for this character and she will keep dying (in fascinating and varied ways), but it’s so interesting to see how different forks in the road of her life change the outcomes. In this way, in fits and starts, we follow Ursula’s life.  What is so especially neat is that in 500 or so pages the same parts of Ursula’s life are retold many times over, but each time slightly differently so that it’s not boring or repetitive. The things that are repeated-motifs and how she greets Death-are beautiful parts that reinforce the circle of Ursula’s life.

The other amazing thing about this book is the historical fiction aspect of it. The story opens with WWI, but when Ursula is an adult she tries to get through WWII.  I always love a good book that vividly portrays the endurance of the British people during the bombings in London and the horrors of it.  This one certainly equals Connie Willis’s depictions in Blackout and All Clear. However, it also adds a few possibilities that have Ursula in Germany during WWII and showing what it could be like on that side.

This was an incredible story, huge and completely captivating me for the 2 1/2 days it took me to read it.  One thing that’s a bit, hmm, I’m not sure the word, but you because you are following Ursula, every time she dies you don’t know what happens after she is gone, and in a couple of particular time lines you really do wonder. But, Ursula wouldn’t know herself, and so we don’t either.  With the final story in particular I did wonder about that and I feel like I maybe missed a little something at the end, so I’m really looking forward to discussing this with my friends who’ve read it.

I cannot recommend this enough. While I know it definitely played to my interests (WWII in England, British stories, and the philosophical ponderings of how even small choices in our life change our lives directions in ways we can never know), I think this would be enjoyed by people who didn’t have those particular interests, too.

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