OK so this book has taken me ages to get through. According to Goodreads I first started reading this in January 2016. That’s well over a year ago and I’ve not long finished it. Was it really so hard or boring that it takes a normally prolific reader 12 months to read? I’d say no. It’s hard to explain but while I really enjoyed it while I was reading it, I found it quite hard to pick back up again. It’s a large book so not great for slipping in your pocket when you nip to the pub and, I don’t know, maybe I was just worried about needing adequate time to absorb my reading properly.
Life After Life is a historical fiction book by Kate Atkinson. It follows the lives of one Ursula Todd, who was born in 1910 in England. No that’s not a typo, I mean lives. This book takes one person and imagines all the different ways that her life might have panned out. Maybe Ursula died during her birth. Maybe she caught pneumonia. Maybe she got blown up in the Blitz. Maybe she got shot while trying to assassinate Hitler, etc etc. While Ursula’s stories mostly follow the same path there are always little differences within the lives. This does lead to a fair amount of repetition depending on where in her life Ursula dies, although thankfully those lives where Ursula survives to a decent age often skip the childhood part.
Thanks to the protracted amount of time we spend in each life stage we get to examine characters in Ursula’s lives from all kinds of different angles and in more detail than usual. As Ursula grows up through the Great War and then the Second World War we get a good view of the changing socioeconomic climate. She is born into a well-off family in a large house with servants yet by the end of the Second World War the house is full of evacuees and Ursula herself is sharing a small flat in London, constantly smeared in dust from finding people trapped in the rubble created by the bombs.
Quite what this strange reincarnation is worth we’re not sure. Ursula does not seem to remember any of her previous lives, although occasionally she has a sense of déjà vu that, when she listens to, steer her away from danger in some way or another. It’s not even a traditional sense of reincarnation, more like a drawn out Groundhog Day. Is she doomed to continue reliving various lives forever?
I can’t quite shake the feeling that Atkinson had lots of ideas for a modestly sized novel and couldn’t quite decide which to go with so wrote them all down and filled in the gaps. It’s interesting, sure, and she’s clearly done a decent amount of research. Her prose is lovely, there’s no debate about whether she can write well. Maybe it’s because I studied German at university, but I’m also rather tired of Hitler. Using him directly as a plot point feels a bit old hat these days. I’m sure this book could have been perfectly interesting without his involvement. My final problem is what genre I’d put this in. It’s clearly fiction, with a historical bent, but also with some sort of sci-fi time travel and maybe a bit of thriller in places?
My bookcase currently contains the sequel, A God in Ruins. I think I might have to wait a while before I pluck up the courage to begin that one, although thankfully I believe it doesn’t have the same writing concept.
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