Book Review: Life After Life
Published by Black Swan
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
When I finished this book, I still had another 45 minutes of an hour-long train journey left. I just sat there, and looked out the window because the real world was too much to take in after such a novel. I hope I can write up a fraction of how it made me feel.
Life After Life is the tale of Ursula Todd; who first dies as a newborn, and then as a child with influenza, then countless times throughout World War II. But it isn’t her re-lived lives that draw this story together. It is Ursula. She is the steady anchor in a whirlpool, she is your confidant and your friend, and she is as assuredly Ursula throughout, no matter what.
When I re-read the blurb on the back of the book before writing this review, it made me think – because, to me, this isn’t a book about someone who gets a do-over until they can get it right. It isn’t someone whose life only serves the purpose to correct history. It is about a unique woman who finds herself in the infinite position of living different lives. It’s a perfect demonstration of the power of choice. Choice is a key theme that runs throughout, and hovers over Ursula’s shoulder like an unwelcome guest – because the pressure of those choices mean life and death, and she knows it.
Throughout the novel, Ursula encounters her past lives over and over again, and like a horror story, that hairs-on-the-nape-of-your-neck sensation is both terrifying and thrilling. Ursula either flees from or pursues that premonition, and that again changes what happens to her.
With each repetition of that February snowstorm, you unearth more about Ursula and her surrounding friends and family, and you will her to live that little bit longer, to turn left instead of right, or to speak up instead of staying quiet. This is a masterpiece of a character novel – neither driven by its design or plot and instead hangs totally upon Ursula, even down to the nuances of the chapters. This could be a heavy burden to bear for most protagonists, but Ursula stands up better than before. Atkinson has created a steady, reliable character in her and no matter where she ends up she remains true to your imagination. You never doubt her, and her decisions never feel crowbarred in. The surprises come from the stories that unfold, not from Ursula herself.
I’m not sure whether or not to label the book as a “war” novel as, although set in the midst of the Blitz for the majority of it, it feels hard to pin it down to one era. Atkinson lingers the most over the “war” chapters, and they feel the closest to Ursula, but there is something still quite remote about them – as if you already know that in one life or other she will survive the war, and will live on to a ripe old age.
It’s hard to review a novel that does away with structure in its traditional form and compels you to sit there and do nothing for 45 minutes after finishing it. I fell in love with the style and pace of it, I fell in love with the characters… and I wish I had thought of this idea first! It’s a unique and compelling novel of great scope and it has a recognisable beauty that haunts.
But it does always beg the question: What would you do if you could try again? And that is the brilliance of this novel. It points the finger and asks you whether you would do the same, whether you could bear the experience, and what it is you would want to do differently. And I’m not sure I have an answer.