Ursula Todd is born during an English snowstorm in 1910 and dies immediately.
Ursula Todd is born during an English snowstorm and lives.
And at key points throughout her life things happen to her or she makes choices which sometimes see her die and sometimes see her live, and also see the fates of those around her change, all running in parallel with major events of the twentieth century, particularly World War Two.
Why did I want to read this?
I like what I’ve read of Kate Atkinson’s work, most especially Case Histories (read before I started this blog so no review I’m afraid). Life After Life was consistently well reviewed and everyone seemed to be reading it all at once, especially after it won the Costa award. I knew that I was always going to read this but wanted to wait until I was good and ready so that I could savour the book without too much chatter. And I’m glad to say it was worth the wait.
What did I think about it?
I thought this was an absolutely wonderful novel. It starts off quite sensationally with the attempted (we’re not sure if Ursula is successful on this occasion) assassination of Hitler, then leaps back to a very short chapter, really only a paragraph, describing the first time (we assume) that Ursula is born, dying before she can take her first breath as she is strangled by her umbilical cord. The throughout the book we are in a world of parallel universes, where Ursula’s life takes different paths at what we come to recognise are key points. In that sense there is a thriller element to it; what’s going to happen to her this time, at what point will the darkness of death descend and she start her story again.
Two things in particular make this work for me. The first is that we avoid Groundhog Day comparisons; not only is Ursula not living the same day over and over, but Atkinson has us picking up the story at different points.
The second is that I really like Ursula as a character and wanted her to have a long and happy life. This is a real issue in one of the strands where she is the victim of domestic violence to quite a horrendous extent, so well written that I was anxious and cringing while I read it (and just wanted to get out of the storyline as quickly as possible, just because of the power of the writing).
The most compelling parts of the novel are those around WW2, whether we are with Ursula in Germany where she has married a man who will become a member of Hitler’s inner circle, or whether we are with her in London during the Blitz. The latter is really astonishing in its recreation of what I imagine it must have been like to be bombed, really very moving. The characters around Ursula are very well drawn and themselves often affected by the different timelines, sometimes living and sometimes dying.
The key question of course is whether there is a purpose to all of this. There are points in the novel where you can clearly see that Ursula knows or suspects things ands tries to prevent them happening and ends up under psychiatric treatment. There are also hints that some of her family may have something like deja vu and get glimpses of what might have been. And the end is quite odd, leaving us with a very minor character, though I for one am not sure why, though still very affecting.
It’s one of my favourite reads of the year so far and a book that I will definitely go back to to see whether I can follow the various threads now that I know where rings are likely to end up.
So if you are one of the few people who hasn’t read this then I can highly recommend it.