Book column: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Published: Monday, September 30, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 30, 2013 21:09
If you could go back and alter something that happened in your life, what would you change? Pick a different major? Marry a different person? Accept a different job?
Kate Atkinson explores this question with a variety of different scenarios in her novel “Life After Life.” The book begins with a mother giving birth to a baby girl who dies when the umbilical cord wraps around her neck and strangles her. The next chapter begins with the same mother, the same baby, except this time the doctor comes in time and saves the child.
The story is an odd compilation of starts and restarts as the child, Ursula, grows up and goes down a variety of different paths. She meets her demise in a variety of different ways, most tragic and some truly appalling, but each time, the clock resets and she starts her life anew.
Despite living the same life over and over, various decisions and scenarios change, causing her to lead her life (and meet her eventual death), in a variety of different ways. In some, she maintains a happy-ish life and meets her death through a variety of accidents. However, some are much more disturbing. The one that hit me the hardest involved a childhood rape, an illegal abortion and her demise via an abusive husband beating her to death in front of her brother.
Although her decisions and life paths change, the timing never does, with Ursula growing up pre-World War II and reaching adulthood in time to be swept into the conflict, along with the remainder of her family. Though she only has bits of déjà vu regarding her previous lives, they ultimately affect the decisions she makes and allow her to avoid some of the more unpleasant events of her past.
Though the book and its entire concept was interesting and very clever, it was a bit hard to dive into. It didn’t take too long to get through, but there were very few parts that actually touched me as a reader and compelled me to keep going. Part of getting attached to a character is being concerned for their welfare and it’s hard to do that when you know if she drowns in the ocean or is crushed in a building collapse, she’ll just restart and avoid that particular disaster the next time.
The constant restarting also got tedious after a while and was occasionally hard to follow or annoying to try to follow. However, as the book went farther into her adulthood and showed a variety of scenarios set during the London Blitz, and even one of her stuck in Berlin during and after the fall of the Third Reich, it was much easier to get lost in the variety of plot lines.
While the book managed to explore the multitude of lives and decisions Ursula made, I was still slightly confused as to what the point was by the end. No matter what she did, good or bad, boring life or extraordinary, the clock always reset when she died and she had to start over. None of her decisions really stuck unless she chose to repeat them the next time around, although the ending made me hopeful that she finally found the best path for her to live her life with minimal pain and regrets. After all, practice makes perfect.
All in all, while I am glad I read “Life After Life,” I was not particularly enthralled with it and probably won’t think much about it again, which is a shame, because it really is a clever concept and quite well written. Oh well, maybe next time around will be different.
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