Review: Life After Life

“I feel as if I’m waiting for something dreadful to happen, and then I realize it already has.” 

I haven’t posted any reviews in a while because I’ve been busy with practicum, grad school applications, and trying to rewrite a novel on a tight deadline. I have, however, found time to read some amazing books that have kept me sane over the past few weeks. 

I’ve always been intrigued by Kate Atkinson’s books; her novels always have a unique premise that promises to be interesting and covers that are absolutely gorgeous. I was tempted to buy her latest novel, Transcription, but in an effort to spend less money on books and to discover if I liked her writing before investing more, I decided to read Life After Life which I had picked up for 2$ a few years ago. 

The premise of the novel is simple: Ursula Todd can’t stay alive. She is born on a cold night in 1910 with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and she dies before she can take a breath. Darkness descends. Then it begins again, but this time, the maid manages to snag a pair of scissors from the sewing basket and cut the cord before Ursula dies. This time, she lives. Over the course of her life and two world wars, Ursula dies in different ways and each time begins again with a slight premonition that she’s seen all of this before. In one life, a servant infects the whole family with Spanish Flu, killing both Ursula and her younger brother. The next time around, Ursula isn’t sure why, but she suddenly feels compelled to push the servant down the stairs, which keeps her housebound before she can catch the flu. This time they all live. 

Over and over, Ursula lives out different lives and deaths. She becomes pregnant at sixteen and has an abortion that alienates her from her family. She marries a tyrant who cons her into their marriage and kills her when she tries to leave. She becomes a member of Adolphe Hitler’s inner circle. She rescues Londoners during the bombing in WW2 and is crushed to death under the weight of buildings multiple times. In one lifetime, she kills Hitler before he can start the war. Each time she is born and each time darkness descends. 

Throughout the novel, there is a secondary and far more disturbing plot line running through like a pulse. Someone in the neighbourhood is raping and murdering young girls around Ursula’s age. The girls change depending on the life time and the circumstances; sometimes we see a near miss (the man with the limp leering at the girls as they run home), other times it is all too clear what comes next and whose body will be found. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I’m still amazed at the structure of it. In lesser hands this book could have been convoluted and tedious, but Atkinson managed to write a novel with folds, creases, and repetitions that kept me reading and made me endlessly curious. 

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