Based on the plot summary, I’d have passed over “Life After Life”. The idea of being endlessly reborn into the same life sounds too much like the tedium of “Groundhog Day”. I’ve also been avoiding all those World-War-II-Is-Seventy books that want to turn this horrible period of Europe’s history into a source of romantic nostalgia.
I bought “Life After Life” because Kate Atkinson wrote it and I’ve always enjoyed her books.
Even so, I was surprised at just how well written this book is. From the assassination attempt on the first page, the book grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. I ended up stealing time so that I could listen to the fourteen-hour audiobook over three days. Even then, I wanted it to go on longer.
“Life After Life” follows the many lives of Ursula Todd. They are all the same life, starting on the same day, in the same place, with the same family. The consequences of small differences in circumstances, in decisions made, in meeting kept or missed, ripple through these lives to change them in surprising, and sometimes tragic, ways. Some lives are distressingly short. Some are just distressing. One or two work out reasonably well for Ursula. In all these lives Ursula is Ursula. She has the same abilities and desires but she follows a different path and has to cope with different consequences.
As the lives went on, I became more and more attached to Ursula, wanting the best for her, hoping that her mysterious déjà vu would help her avoid the pitfalls of her earlier lives. Slowly, it started to dawn on me that I was missing the point. Each of Ursula’s lives is real. None of them is a rehearsal. Her life is not a video game where each replay allows her to get to learn something that will take her to a higher level, her life is an opportunity for her to embrace who she is and do the best she can with what she has. It seemed to me that Kate Atkinson has started with Nietzsche’s imperative, “Become who you are” and added a very English middle-class code: “Needs must”. Becoming who you are does not free you from the responsibility to do the best you can in the circumstances.
“Life After Life” is much more than a vehicle for a philosophical discussion. The people in it are real. As Ursula’s lives pass you learn to care about her family, her friends and the people she works with so that it matters when bad things happen. I found myself in tears many times while reading this book. Kate Atkinson pulls no punches on the bad things that happen and bad things, often the same bad things, happen again and again. The main message seems to be: “Bad things will happen. What choice do you have other than to deal with them?” Or at least, that is the response that consistently makes Ursula, Ursula. Some of the people around constantly seek to avoid the consequences of bad things happening.
One of the main bad things that happens is World War II. There is no nostalgia for plucky Britain, standing alone against the Nazi menace, keeping calm and carrying on. Instead, I got the most harrowing descriptions of the Blitz I have ever read. Kate Atkinson manages to convey the scale of the death and destruction, the relentlessness of the bombings, the defenselessness of the people and the personal cost of a “Needs must” approach. I also got to see the impact in Germany and to experience the fear of being in Berlin, knowing that the Russian Army was raping and murdering its way towards you.
The language, both dialogue and description, perfectly evokes the time, place and social class. The depth to which the people and their relationships are imagined and re-imagined is astonishing. I felt as if I knew these people better than the ones I work with every day.
This is a wonderful book. Yet I recommend you do not read it. Listen to it instead. The audiobook is narrated by the actress, Fenella Woolgar. She is the perfect choice for this. Her performance is faultless. She carried me through this book, helping me to focus and to hear the voices of the time.
To hear Fenella Woolgar reading “Life After Life”, click on the SoundCloud link below