Life After Life

An excerpt from page 499 of Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Life After Life, published in April 2013, by Little, Brown. It’s mid-1920s England; Ursula is fifteen or sixteen; Silvie is her mother. They are well-to-do.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine …

      “What is that you’re reading?” Silvie asked suspiciously.

“Marvell.”

Sylvie took the book from her and scrutinized the verses. “It’s rather lush,” she concluded.

“‘Lush’—how can that be a criticism?” Ursula laughed and bit into an apple.

“Try not to be precocious,” Sylvie sighed. “It’s not a pleasant thing in a girl. What are you going to do when you go back to school after the holidays—Latin? Greek? Not English literature? I don’t see the point.”

“You don’t see the point of English literature?”

“I don’t see the point of studying it. Surely one just reads it?” She sighed again. Neither of her daughters bore any resemblance to her. For a moment Sylvie was back in the past, under a bright London sky, and could smell the spring flowers newly refreshed by rain, hear the quiet comforting clink and jingle of Tiffin’s tack.

“I might do Modern Languages. I don’t know. I’m not sure, I haven’t quite worked out a plan.”

“A plan?”

I started to write up this little excerpt as, say, a Short Saturday post. Just something to amuse—a mother who doesn’t see a point to studying English literature; an era when a plan for a young woman would be to marry and raise a family, not decide what subject she wanted to pursue in her secondary education.

But then I read a page or two past this passage, and—because I know how the story ends now, and didn’t when I marked this page—I was impressed by what I saw layered into the scene … and I fell in love with the book again.

Life After Life was one of the hot books in the spring of 2013. I read reviews and knew I had to have it. If you don’t like magical realism, if you don’t want to have to think a little, this isn’t the book for you. But if you like something that’s complex and layered and deep—and still reads like a novel you’d take to the beach—then step right up.

The dust jacket says:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. Ursula dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on toward its second cataclysmic world war. Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can, will she?

That depends, of course. This is a book about déjà vu (maybe); it’s about how even the smallest choices made by one anonymous person can ripple out and change the course of history. It’s also a meditation on the nature of time in a human life; after all, who really knows what happened to you except …well … you?

It isn’t quite an alternative history—stories like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which FDR is defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the presidential election of 1940, or Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a detective story set in a world in which Nazi Germany won World War 2, or Stephen King’s 11/22/63, about a time traveler who attempts to prevent the assassination of JFK—but it does explore the what-ifs. As Ursula learns to pay attention to her déjà vu moments, she also becomes simultaneously introspective and acutely aware of what’s going on in the world. And the period details seem spot on, even the harrowing scenes during the London Blitz.

Not everyone loved it. (The Guardian, for example.) Others did—the Telegraph, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times. You can read these reviews, some of which tell a little more than I am willing to say. Does Ursula figure out what is happening? When she says to a friend,

Don’t you wonder sometimes … If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.

… the reader also wonders. You can form your own opinion; I certainly have mine.

I think you take what you want from it. I also think I gave it a more careful read than some of these reviewers. (I wasn’t meeting a deadline.) I definitely had the sense that over time Ursula understood what was happening to her; it made her both brave and cautious. But that’s just me. Have you read it yet? (Note: this assumes you couldn’t possibly not want to read it.) I’d love to hear your take on it.

Tweet: Atkinson’s Life After Life: if you don’t want to have to think a little, this isn’t the book for you.
Tweet: My thoughts on Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Life After Life.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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5 Trackbacks

  1. By The Christmas Book on 30 December, 2013 at 10:29 am

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