Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

“A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.”

Ursula Todd is born and dies. Ursula Todd is born, and manages not to die, at least for a while longer. Again and again her life is reset, as she falls foul of accidents and illness. Eventually it seems as if some of the past experiences seep into her unconscious, and she starts to shape events without really understanding why.

“Everyone seems to be waiting for something, Ursula thought. ‘Best not to wait,’ Izzie said. ‘Best to do.‘”

LAL is an odd book to get into. The first several chapters are told more from Sylvia’s viewpoint – Ursula’s mother, given Ursula is a baby. The switch to the ‘real’ main character thus takes a bit of getting used to, and does make the first part of the book feel a little disjointed. More, Sylvia never really returns as a strong presence, really, which makes it all doubly odd.

The repetition works far better than I’d feared: just before I got fed up of it, we start skipping the early/survived bits, and start taking more divergent paths through Ursula’s adult life. It seems that she tries out every way to experience the war that shapes her life and the story, including at least once from inside Nazi Germany. To what purpose? Well, that’s never really explicitly answered – it’s up to you, the reader, to decide, I think. The ending is the subject of much discussion online – and maybe that’s the point, this is that kind of ‘literary’ book, that’s meant to leave you asking questions.

So what is the book about? Partly, it’s the butterfly effect-esque exploration of how tiny alterations can make huge differences down the line. Mostly, though, what I got out of it was an examination of the second World War and life in that time period, and – occasionally – life afterwards, from the viewpoint of different kinds of lives. That it was fundamentally the same character in each just highlighted the circumstances over the person, and sometime the arbitrary cruelness or otherwise of life.

“They were the kind of clothes that might turn you into someone else.”

It’s not a book for everyone, and certainly not for every mood. I surprised myself, though, in soon becoming utterly gripped by the whole thing – a real rush home to snuggle up with kind of a tale. And while much of the material is very dark indeed, overall I found the whole thing oddly uplifting. Worth the awards – and the attempt, at least!

“Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”

Paperback: 610 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2013
Read from 28th September – 5th October 2015

My rating: 9/10

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