Life after life is a book with an unusual premise: ‘What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’ The structure of the book is based on that premise as we repeatedly revisit scenes from Ursula Todd’s life, each time with subtle differences and twists which sometimes lead to very different outcomes.
As is the pattern now the book divided opinion – some of us loved it and others found the central conceit and reworking of the incidents with the chopping and changing between time lines infuriating. I liked the ambiguities with various possibilities left unresolved whilst others would have preferred a beginning, one middle and a single resolved ending.
We were agreed that the writing and characterisations were good, with even the minority characters were rounded and sympathetic. The portrait of middle-class family life between the wars has a slightly golden, nostalgic glow about it –summer picnics, tea on the lawn and bluebell woods. The various sibling relationships are beautifully drawn.
The portrait of living in London through the war was believable and vivid – Kate Atkinson has brought in a wealth of research from eye witness accounts of the Blitz but this is worn lightly. The bombing of Argyll Street is revisited several times from different perspectives but the accounts interweave and lend richness to each other. We reflected on the resilience of the ARP volunteers – out each night during raids rescuing folk, and yet maintaining day jobs.
The German scenario in which Ursula is befriended by Eva Braun and meets Hitler seemed a little far fetched, and yet the account of the suffering of the German civilian population in the bombing of Berlin gave a balance.
The book gives a feel for how seemingly chance events can turn a life into different avenues – who knows whether each time a choice is made or a feeling acted upon a parallel universe opens up! There were some ambiguities in that often Ursula’s deja vue takes the form of a feeling of dread, and she responds to that feeling by instinct – and yet the opening scenario in which she assassinates Hitler in 1930 suggests conscious planning based on knowledge of the future, and her various attempts to prevent the maid Bridget from going to London to celebrate the Armistice (which results in the Spanish flu being introduced to the household) gradually become more deliberate – it takes a few attempts to get the intervention right suggesting learning, and an order to the sequence of lives.
Kate Atkinson has just won the 2016 Costa Book Award for her followup to this book ‘A god in ruins’