I’d been waiting ages for this to come out in paperback and finally got my hands on it thanks to the dwindling but sufficient funds on my Christmas ‘Waterstones’ Gift Card. I have nothing against hardbacks; other than they are cumbersome to hold, won’t fit in my handbag and take up too much space on my shelves!
Atkinson’s last four works have featured Scottish detective Jackson Brodie and combine a wry sense of humour with a contemporary setting and plot lines. ‘Life after Life’ has the trademark observational humour but most of the story takes place between 1910 and the end of WW2. Ursula is born to parents Sylvie and Hugh at the start of the book, but fails to take her first breath. Presumably realising that this inauspicious beginning would not herald much of a story, Atkinson unfurls a careful plot which sees Ursula born again, at the same time and place, into the same family. This time she lives a little longer, but before long the darkness falls and she begins her life cycle again. There is no explanation of how this happens, but to get the best from the novel, I discovered it was easiest just to accept that it does! With each incarnation, although the central characters in Ursula’s life remain the same, her circumstances and experiences vary. The novel begins and ends with the same scene, where Ursula (with the benefit of hindsight) has the chance to completely change the course of European history.
It’s a fascinating premise, how differently we might all lead our lives if we had more than one opportunity to get it right. The prose is warm, artfully observed and at times very funny, at others very touching. More than one of Ursula’s deaths moved me to tears, and the scenes set in London during the bombings are vividly recounted. Yet somehow the book is lacking. At just over 600 pages, it feels overly long, and the cyclical nature of Ursula’s life necessitates reading the same scenarios several times. Obviously! Many of the reader reviews of the book have expressed the same sentiment – ‘I usually love Kate Atkinson , but …’ which sums up my view of ‘Life after Life’.
Of course, in my next lifetime, I may choose to feel differently about it.