“What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Such is the impulse behind Kate Atikinson’s Life After Life. It is, to use a Britishism, brilliant. Beyond brilliant. It is undoubtedly my favorite book of the year.
Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in February, deep in the English countryside. Before taking her first breath she dies by strangulation, the umbilical cord wrapped mercilessly around her neck. Her death is swift and properly mourned.
Then, Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in February, deep in the English countryside. She finally takes her first breath after the doctor cuts the umbilical cord wrapped mercilessly around her neck. “She nearly died,” the doctor says.
On and on it goes through several decades and two disastrous wars. Ursula dies several times over, yet is quickly reborn only to give life another go, again and again. It’s a deep meditation on the impact small everyday choices have on our lives, yet the futility of obsessing over those small choices is regularly called into question.
Atikinson’s writing is clever and witty and her writing is heavily seasoned with allusions and intertextuality, making it an intensely rich read. The history and detail that went into the book are astounding and inspiring. When Adam’s sister Erin was visiting us this weekend we were talking about The Goldfinch and the lively debate she had with her book club on the merits of the book. Many of the women in her club felt bogged down in the backstory, laden with details. Life After Life is all backstory. The plot moves along of course, but as Ursula is constantly reliving many of the same scenarios the story feels familiar at turns, jarring though those turns may be. That is all to say, if you are not a backstory person, you are probably not a Life After Life person.
I loved it, though. I loved the clues and familiar scenarios tweaked by Ursula’s time and experience. While I didn’t identify closely with Ursula, I was still drawn by her inquisitive nature and thoughtful contemplation. She was a very vivid character for me, one that leaves a lasting impression.
“Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”
It’s a disturbing way to understand life, isn’t it? Especially given how forward thinking many of us are. I am (almost cripplingly) prone to reflection but often find myself worrying about what impact my choices today will have on tomorrow. Thinking that time is only a construction of our society or own mind can be liberating, freeing, because it means that we can change our perspective, and in turn change the course of our lives.
Heavy stuff for a rainy Tuesday morning. Have you read Life After Life? What did you think? Next up is Beloved, just like I promised!