Free Range Reading

Life After Life

Published on Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Life After Life

What if you got the chance to relive your past?

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. 

Comments (3)6727

3 comments on article "Life After Life"

Trulee Ricketts

2/15/2014 3:41 PM

"Jeanne" I would love to talk to you about this book. My book club met Friday (2/14/14) to discuss Life after Life. I loved it and everyone else seemed confused by the book. I would like to hear your interpretation on the relationship between George, Sylvie and Teddy. Sylvie being seen by George nursing Teddy, Sylvie feeding and wiping George's chin on his mothers porch after the war and Sylvie"s suicide after Teddy dies during the war. I think George could be the father of Teddy. Nancy, who died young, her body found in the horse's trough, and Teddy who died early of influenza and later as a war pilot , reunite at the end of the book in a pub and Ursula thinks she sees Teddy mouth "thank you". As you are quoted, "a purposely revision of life." Trulee


2/23/2014 4:25 PM


I hadn't really thought of the possibility of George being Teddy's father, but reading back, I would say that the author planted some seeds, so to speak, for the reader. Sylvie certainly fantasized about George. And Hugh comments one evening that Teddy looks nothing like him. It could be a red herring, though. I think Atkinson really wants us to play along with the idea of many possibilities to every tale. I even went so far as to suspect Maurice as Nancy's murderer.

I think this book is confusing for a lot of readers because the concept of changing your story is unusual. It's not a simple "alternate universe" of "what if" scenarios that we've all experienced in other novels. I think that's why this book is so brilliant. I was in a discussion of this book with a group, and one gentleman said, "Well, at least it had a happy ending." I said, "Well, I'm not sure it has an ending at all."

Thanks for writing. I'm so glad you enjoyed this book!

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