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.
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!