Sunday, 25 September 2016

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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It feels like it's been a while since I've read a book that makes me truly evangelical, the kind of person who buttonholes everyone she meets and tells them about this awesome book she's just read and if they haven't they really must right right now. 

So, are you listening? If you haven't read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, you must, right right now. It swept me away, and every day I had it out from the library, I was eager for lunchtime to come at work so I could sit down and be sucked in again.

Ursula lives her life over and over again. It's not so much that she remembers it wholesale, although she feels echoes when emotionally charged situations come up in later lives, letting her steer her life into different paths, some better, some worse.

Of course, the whole book starts with her killing Hitler, which not only nails this book down to a particular time and place, it gives a hint of some of the major themes that will run throughout. She is born not long before World War I, and that means that she's an adult when World War II comes along. In almost every life where she survives that long, she resides in London, and lives through the Blitz, or doesn't survive the Blitz, depending.

It becomes in many ways a reminder of the monotonous and terrifying length of war, how she can never quite get away from it, no matter where she goes or what she does. Her life could be different but in every lifetime, the war looms as an event that changes everything.

This is, of course, not a linear book. It's not a steady uphill climb towards her perfect life - every time different mistakes exist to be made, although she is able to prevent a few of the most horrible. She is the sum of all her life, of all her past lives, and does things without even understanding their root causes.

I was taken near the end by the suggestion that she might not be the only person who is undergoing something like this, as the day of her birth suddenly takes a rapid turn that doesn't seem possible without someone else feeling the same echoes Ursula does.

I have in the past dinged Atkinson for writing really good books that rely on gimmicks that don't add anything right at the end. They've seemed somewhat forced and out of place, and the books were strong enough they didn't need that. In Life After Life, she finally nails it - the gimmick, if you call it that in this case, is evident from the beginning and enriches the book and the characters, instead of feeling tacked on and unnecessary. This feels like a story that could only have been told this specific way, and I am so so glad that I finally sat down and read it. I could barely catch my breath.

1 comment:

  1. Great points throughout, Megan! Count me as another who thought it all came together well. The gimmick, as we'll call it, worked well with Atkinson's sense of story.