“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-kate-atkinsonThis is a novel with an unusual (unique)? structure, as the narrative repeatedly loops back in time to describe alternative lives for its central character, Ursula Todd.  Having been born on 11 February 1910, the first version sees her stillborn as she is strangled by her umbilical cord. So we return to the same date and circumstances, only this time she is saved and survives into childhood, at least until the next accident overtakes her and once again we are back in 1910. After several iterations of her life, we find her during World War Two, where she works in London for the War Office, witnessing and dealing with the results of the Blitz. Todd eventually comes to realize that she has lived before and decides to try to prevent the war by killing Adolf Hitler in late 1930.

Wikipedia notes that the book won the Costa Book Awards in 2013, and was shortlisted for numerous other awards.

We read this in February 2016  and twelve people turned out to talk about it. The discussion was fast and furious with about half of us really liking the book and half not.

Those who liked it thought the idea was fascinating and well worked-out. Margaret summed the concept as “A History of What-Ifs” and Jill enjoyed it so much that she read it twice (leading to a question about whether the ending was different, second time around)! The varying stories of the different lives were thought to be interesting and the war years were favourite sections for many of us. Ursula and her aunt Izzie were both thought to be interesting characters. And most of us – including some of those who disliked the book – thought the use of language was good, that the use of similes avoided being commonplace and clichéd and was instead unusual, yet appropriate.

Those who didn’t much care for the book thought that it became boring and repetitive and didn’t see the point. Quite a few readers – even some of us who liked the book – felt that many characters were thin and stereotyped.

Brenda missed the meeting but emailed to say that she had seriously disliked Ursula and was found the book implausible and with a tedious writing style. Bill also couldn’t make the meeting but sent us a full review, an edited version of which is below:
As a group, we have never been over-fond of novels that are constructed around shifts in time. This novel abounds in such shifts, which served, amongst other things, to confuse my reading no end. There was, in fact, no end, though Ursula suffered plenty.
The result of all this, for me, was a loss of tension in the novel, a loss of reality, and a consequent loss of sympathy with the characters. As it’s a novel that deals with people who are disrupted, and messed up, physically, psychologically, morally and practically by world wars, I wondered if the author was attempting to similarly discombobulate her readers. The theme of the book, for me, was social change; and Kate Atkinson achieves this through lots of conflict between the old (values, mores, habits, responsibilities) and the new. There are many things in bilateral opposition: Suzie and Izzie; town and country; horses and motors; decorum reticence and restraint versus informality, hedonism and instant gratification; the Germans and the Allies; and the fox and the rabbit. The latter appear on the book’s jacket: the fox on the front, the rabbit on the back. Book covers carry a message; they have a meaning.
Early in the book, Hugh says to Maurice and his university friends, about to go strike-breaking in London: ‘You’re trying to shore up a civilisation that is in its death throes.’ This thread runs throughout the book.
There may be another theme in the book, suggested by the author herself in the postscript, and by Pamela when she says: ‘There are nuts and bolts that hold our society together – and marriage is part of that.’ Authors seem often too close to their creations to pick out themes, and what premise they start with often turns into something else for the reader. I think that this author wants women to stand up for themselves, and not be wallflowers. There are many strong women in the novel, with Hugh the only male of similar standing.
Life After Life was an enjoyable read, if a little patchy: I particularly disliked the whole of Ursula’s relationship with Derek Oliphant, and found him a ridiculous villain, more suited to one of Atkinson’s detective stories. The whole section on their marriage seemed an irrelevance. And I particularly liked the way the book was written – her use of dialogue and imagery in particular. There wasn’t much that was funny in the novel, but the chapter, towards the end, when Hugh accompanies the heavily pregnant Izzie back from France (as her husband) had me laughing out loud. Izzie! A niece’s dream Aunt, and a parent’s nightmare.
Fifteen of us gave scores ranging from 4 to 10, resulting in an average score of 6.5.

 

Want yet another point of view? Helen Brown writes in The Telegraph:

Although Atkinson gets the period atmosphere so spot on you can smell the boiled cabbage, this is not a “wartime novel”. It’s more a case of Atkinson using war to demonstrate the haphazardness of history.

 

 

 

 

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