Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

The beginning: In Life after Life, a woman called Ursula takes out a gun to shoot Hitler. At once we are flashed back to the day of her birth, when she dies from having the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. But Ursula is not a regular child. She gets to try again. The second time around, the doctor arrives in time to save her with a pair of surgical scissors, and she survives to live a regular life. Again and again throughout her childhood, Ursula dies, and dies, and dies again. Always she gets another try at life. She does not remember her earlier go-rounds, and neither does anybody; but she does, sometimes, become afflicted with vivid deja vu.


Cover report: British cover wins. American cover is not turning in a good effort. Are there even any roses in this book?

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want them): I read the end because I was curious how — if she shoots Hitler in the end, and the SS officers around her shoot her right away (as they would) — how she manages to stay dead. Surely she would just end up zapped back a few years in her timeline, with Hitler not dead at all? The end was not enlightening. The penultimate chapter is the shooting-Hitler chapter a second time, and in the final chapter, Ursula is alive after all, and so is her brother Teddy, who in earlier chapters (I flipped backwards to see) died in World War II. I flipped backwards a good bit to see what was what, to no avail.

The whole: My last foray into Kate Atkinson’s work was not a resounding success. I am delighted, because I prefer agreeing with Teresa to not agreeing with her, and because I prefer liking things to not liking things, to have enjoyed Life after Life very much. I read — and am glad I did — a physical copy of it, borrowed from the lovely Julia, which permitted me as much back-and-forth flipping as my heart desired. Even if you are a linear reader, I recommend going this route. The book is not linear, and there’s no reason you should be.

Teresa reports that the writing in Life after Life lacked the quirk she’s accustomed to experiencing in a Kate Atkinson book. Maybe I just don’t know the glory that awaits me in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but I thought the writing here was a delight: easily, lightly funny throughout. It was all exactly like this:

Could you drink the water in the Serpentine? Shelley’s first wife had drowned herself here but Ursula supposed that on a day like this — crowds of people enjoying the sunshine — it would be almost impossible to avoid another Mr. Winton jumping in and saving her.

and this:

Hugh [Ursula’s father] was relieved that she would be spending her time “in the provinces,” where “people are, on the whole, better behaved.” (“He means duller,” Ursula said to Millie.) Hugh had completely vetoed Paris, he had a particular aversion to the city, and was hardly more keen on Nancy, which was still uncompromisingly French. (“Because it’s in France,” Ursula pointed out.) He had seen enough of the continent during the Great War, he said, he couldn’t see what all the hullabaloo was about.

It was just fun to read.

Atkinson excels at depicting the dynamics in Ursula’s family. She is the middle one of five children, and not unnaturally she is closest with the sister right above her (Pamela), and the brother right below (Teddy). The family’s closeness rang very true to me, how they knew each other’s flaws and talked to each other about them, but ultimately loved each other tremendously and bothered about being near each other. (Interestingly, although Ursula’s path in life goes a dozen different ways, Teddy and Pamela tend to shake out about the same most every time.)

“Practice makes perfect!” Ursula’s mother is wont to chirrup at intervals throughout the book. She’s referring to playing instruments, usually, but Life after Life wonderfully shows Ursula getting better at living her life through many successive tries at it. It isn’t just that Ursula gets better at producing more favorable outcomes for herself (that’s touch-and-go). The main thing is that she gets better at being herself, being a version of herself who is brave and good and in control. It was a lovely thing to see.

Highly, highly recommended!

  • This is one I’ve set aside to catch up on this month, so I’m glad to hear good things. Also good to hear that a paper copy is the way to go, since that’s what I have. This is going to be my first Kate Atkinson, so I have no idea what to expect!

    • Gin Jenny

      Expect lots of strangeness and an unresolved ending! It’s a very good book.

      • Joseph Mallozzi

        I’d argue there is a difference between an unresolved or cryptic ending and one that doesn’t make any sense. Unfortunately, the ending to this book falls into the latter category. How can she be alive in the timeline with a dead Hitler if she was killed after killing him?

  • Well gosh, I wish people would stop HIGHLY recommending this, since it just adds to my Lifetime Burden of Books To Be Read. But I have so loved Kate Atkinson in the past, and yes, that Teresa is a tireless advocate, already inducing me to add one to my shelf!

    • I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to know that I’m considered a tireless advocate of Atkinson. She’s worth tirelessly advocating. 🙂

  • How she manages to stay dead? How have I managed not to read this book yet?

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahahahaha, it’s not necromancy! But you should read it, though. It’s very good.

  • Argh. I think I am the very last person in the world to have read this book. Soon…soon… I actually had it in my hand but decided on Gaiman’s latest (the Ocean at the End of the Lane) instead for my last new-book splurge, (And I thought the cover – the roses one) BORING, and the paper flimsy (in a cheap way). I may just order myself a used UK copy.

    LOVE LOVE LOVE Atkinson. (Mostly. Human Croquet and Emotional Weird didn’t really take.) You NEED to read Behind the Scenes. It is most excellent.

    And I need to get my ducks in a row and read Life After Life. Especially after reading your (very good) review!

    • Oops – typos in comment above. Please forgive. Using my son’s laptop in a dark hotel room, Should be Emotionally Weird, plus some punctuation stuff which is all wrong. 😉

    • Gin Jenny

      I shall read Behind the Scenes, promise. It is on my list.

  • This is one of those occasions – that I get with some authors – where one book tends to put me off them forever. I’ve read one of her Jackson Brodie novels and found it, meh. Both that and that the idea that Ursula is constantly reborn would probably grate on me. I may bookmark this one and save it for when I forget the Brodie novel.

  • I wasn’t as keen on this as you, but the ending left me wondering for a good while (at the same time that was possibly the point). I did love the ‘use’ of Sylvia. Not the best character by any means, but it provided a lot for Atkinson to discuss.

  • Hooray! I’m so glad you liked this. I felt sure you would like Atkinson if you tried a non-Brodie book. She is fun to read, even when she’s talking about really awful things. Her other books are less serious, so she’s able to infuse more snark into the story.

  • I only had time to read a few chapters before this book was due back at the library. I’m hoping to give it a try again – I love this concept.

  • I’ve heard mixed reviews on this one, but it sounds like a gem when you tell it. I may just have to take your word for it!

  • I haven’t read this book as I thought the synopsis sounds really strange. I can’t quite get my mind around it.

  • Jenny

    Oh, that Teresa! She got me to read Atkinson in the first place and now I’ve read nearly as much of her as Teresa has. Still looking forward to this one!

  • I’ve been backing and forthing with this one (the avoidance curve is in play, due to life events lately). But your review is encouraging. Also, I will not feel culturally literate until I read some Kate Atkinson. (Of course, that is just one item on the list…there is an enormous backlog of crucial movies and TV that I will undoubtedly never catch upon).

  • “The main thing is that she gets better at being herself, being a version of herself who is brave and good and in control. It was a lovely thing to see.”

    Aww, that right there makes me want to read this. I’ve been meaning to since it came out, just hasn’t happened yet…

  • I do like Kate Atkinson, although I find her as disturbing as she is funny. There’s a real darkness beneath the humorous surface of her prose. I’ll be reading this one when it comes out in paperback, and am very glad indeed that you liked it.

    • Gin Jenny

      I quite like a real darkness beneath a humorous surface. Humor that’s only humor is great but it can get tiresome rather quickly.