Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is a multi-layered novel that is difficult, if not impossible, to describe in three or four paragraphs, but I’ll give it a shot. The story is mostly set in England beginning in 1911 and there’s even a single chapter that briefly fast-forwards us to 1967. Among other things, this is a rich family saga set in the period just before, during, and immediately after the two World Wars.
We first meet Ursula Todd at her birth. She is the third of the five Todd children from an upper middle class family living in the rural countryside outside of London. On the night that Ursula is born, there is a terrible blizzard and neither the doctor nor the midwife can attend the birth. Unfortunately, there are complications and baby Ursula dies. In the following chapter, there’s an alternate version of the story. The doctor manages to arrive in time, and Ursula survives. As Ursula grows up and moves on through childhood and adulthood, she dies many times, only to be revived in another version of the same story.
Ursula is blessed or cursed (depending on how you look at it) with some kind of extra-ordinary perception, inexplicable memories of the future, dread, anticipation, déjà vu and other tools, that allow her to reinvent the outcomes of her story and those of the people around her. At first, these actions are done unconsciously, but later her revisions are sometimes done with purpose, as she tries to intervene in life’s events. Her overarching goal is to protect what is good in life and what she loves, which is often personified by her younger brother, Teddy, the Todd family’s golden child.
Life After Life looks at family relationships, English class distinctions, gender roles in the first half of the 20th century, religious and philosophical concepts, and much more, through a rich assortment of well-drawn characters. The book contains a harrowing and vivid description of the Blitzkrieg when Germany rained bombs on English civilians for weeks and weeks on end, and the book it is decidedly anti-war. The book can be darkly comic, and it is beautifully written.
There is much more to the archaeology of this tale, but above all, Life After Life will make you think about the “what ifs” that provide us with a variety of life choices while, at the same time, making life unpredictable, and eerily random.