Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
It is a question you may have asked. Would I want to live my life over, making different choices knowing they would radically alter my life’s journey? For Ursula Todd, the main character in Life After Life, it is not a choice. It just happens…once…twice…multiple times, which changes not only her life, but possibly history.
The book begins in November 1930 with Ursula entering a café in Munich and shooting at Adolf Hitler. Bullets fly her way too, but we are left with only two words “darkness fell.” Ursula’s journey to get to this possible world-altering scene is what initially hooked me into wanting to read this book. It is wonderfully challenging and inventive in the ways it deals with time, choices, accidents and consequences.
Flashback to 1910 when Ursula is stillborn with the cord wrapped around her neck. The medical help needed is delayed by a snowstorm. Immediately following is a successful birth because help does arrive. Ursula’s multiple births, lives and deaths continue throughout the book, each time taking her on to different fates. Catch influenza during WWI from a servant and die; live because the servant herself does not get sick. Wade into the ocean and die; wade into the ocean in front of someone who can save you. Become pregnant as a teenager; avoid the pregnancy by avoiding the rape. For the first third or so of the book these occurrences deal with Ursula’s years growing up outside of London.
Many of the characters in the book appear throughout Ursula’s various lives: her family, her friends and some of her co-workers. You will feel you know the Todd family well, as they too have their lives changed as Ursula’s life alters. It is a varied and interesting cast of characters.
As the book goes into the 1930s, 1940s and beyond, time manipulation gets more complex as we see Ursula at different points in each new life that are not in a straight time sequence. The chapters build to WWII which Ursula experiences in several ways in Britain and alternately in Germany. For most of the book Ursula only has a vague uneasiness that events are somehow familiar to her, but eventually her awareness of what has transpired in previous lives takes her to the encounter with Hitler.
Readers who like their time in a straight line and who hate flashbacks or flash-forwards may struggle with this novel. As for me, I LOVED the book and consider it one of the best of many great novels by Kate Atkinson. It is certainly the best book I have ever read dealing with time manipulation. At the end I had a nice glass of Chardonnay and some Brie to celebrate completing my journey(s) with Ursula.
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