Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life After Life follows Ursula Todd, who is born in England during a blizzard in February 1910. She dies immediately, and is born again, same time, same place. This time she makes it to toddlerhood. Each time she is born, circumstances begin the same but small changes allow her life to continue or not, and the same is true for some of those around her. Sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t.
Through the apparently inexhaustible rounds of living and dying, Ursula begins to recognize situations she’s experienced before and is able to prevent or avoid some outcomes. The biggest changes come in how she lives her young adulthood, which takes place when the Blitz is on in London.
The retelling of the same person’s life story might sound dull, but it is anything but. Atkinson is able to build up suspense in the reader each time to find out what will change this time. As The Guardian puts it, “Atkinson’s knack for retelling – what to repeat, what to change, what to leave out – is satisfyingly faultless.”
The novel is also paints a touching and gently humorous portrait of family life. We spend a great deal of time with Ursula’s family of origin and get to know her parents, brothers, sister, and aunt well. With the exception of her oldest brother Maurice, whom no one in the family seems to like, each person is seen through a loving lens, particularly Ursula’s sister Pam. The bond between the sisters permeates every iteration of Ursula’s life.
There is also a philosophical element to the book. What would you do if you could relive your life until you got it right? At one point Ursula decides to make a huge change, but questions remain. Just what does change, when the world is always reset on her death? And do others in her world also experience any of the premonitions and deja vu that Ursula does?
Life After Life is engaging, beautifully written, and utterly inventive. This amazing novel is a joy to read. Fans of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels will find a departure but should also enjoy the trip.