Become such as you are, having learned what that is.
In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson spins a really fantastic yarn. The book is her longest, but it doesn’t feel particularly at all. The premise is easily summed up: the book begins with the birth of Ursula , our main character, in February of 1911 and she will proceed to live life after life after life. She’s born and immediately dies, umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Then she’s born and the doctor is able to cut the cord and save her life. We then follow her for a couple of years and she drowns in a tragic accident at the beach. Then she arrives at the beach, the accident happens, but she’s saved by a bystander. You get the picture. There’s something of the Twilight Zone about this book, particularly as it progresses. But Atkinson crafts a really wonderful cast of characters and puts them through their paces here like the master of fiction writing that she is. The book is incredibly bleak at times; there are lengthy sections during World War II that are genuinely harrowing and nightmarish. In Ursula, Atkinson has crafted another in a long line of brilliant female characters and she’s an undeniably compelling protagonist. The book’s a real page turner; knowing, no matter what page you’re on, that some sort of violent death could push the reset button at any second is genuinely suspenseful and intriguing. This was the first book Atkinson wrote after completing her Jackson Brodie quartet, so when it came out in 2013, it had been thirteen years since Atkinson had published anovel that wasn’t very specifically trying to explode the thriller genre. But in its own way, this book functions as a compulsively readable thriller without any of the real trappings of the genre. But if the book is about anything, it’s about, I think, the paper thin moments on which lives turn. As we watch Ursula’s many lives unfold, we see how the simplest and least dramatic of moments can set her life on incredibly different courses. Whether she heads straight home from the train station or takes her time in a leisurely stroll might have serious consequences for many different people and at one point, there’s a moment when she literally takes a side-step . . . just an actual step to the side in order to dodge something that she previously didn’t dodge and it sets her life on two extremely different courses. In some ways this book is a subversion of destiny; not only can we effect our own fates, we do so in the simplest, quietest of ways. In some ways, however, it is a story of fate where simple decisions can send the character down paths that lead inevitably to one conclusion or another. It’s another masterpiece, that’s all I can say for sure. It’s rich, multi-layered, beautifully written, amazingly characterized and utterly compelling. Par for Atkinson, then. This would be her eighth novel; also the eighth novel of hers that I’ve read; also the eighth novel that gets a four star rating from me. If you haven’t discovered Atkinson yet, don’t let anything stop you. 4 stars.
tl;dr – compelling story of a woman who lives her life over and over is well-written, suspenseful and masterful; a beautiful meditation on life and death and fate. 4 stars.