Book review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Ugh, what on earth is the matter with me that I waited so long before reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life? I’d like to go back and shake some sense into the me that said I wouldn’t read this until the hype had died down, because this book surpasses all the hype.

Ursula Todd is born in a snowstorm in England in 1910, and dies before she’s taken her first breath. Then she is born again, and lives a little longer. And so on, Ursula getting chance after chance to live her life, to improve on the last life, to spend more time with her family, to learn from her mistakes, and perhaps even to save the world.

Life After Life is an expansive, sweeping work, clocking in at more than 600 pages, covering the 20th century’s biggest conflicts, and tackling the concept of time and reincarnation. Yet for all that, it’s a wonderfully intimate read, one that draws the reader into its world fully – I felt like I was living alongside Ursula as she grew up. Atkinson is so clever in this book, changing one thing to slightly make all the difference to each of Ursula’s lifetimes. Sometimes that one change is huge, sometimes it’s tiny. 

Atkinson elicits huge emotions from her reader, and she’s adept at shocking you. There were times I found myself laughing one minute, and three sentences later I was horrified and almost in tears, and Ursula’s painful experiences hurt me and surprised me as much as they did her. The reason the emotions are so real is because Atkinson has created characters you really, really care about. As we live and die with Ursula, we learn to love her, hope for her and despair for her. And we do the same with her family. I especially loved Ursula’s brother Teddy, and her father Hugh. Both are wonderful characters who you just want to wrap in cotton wool and keep safe, much like Ursula does. I think key to this book is that, even though the main plot device of living again and again is not within our grasp, we all can see ourselves as Ursula.

Life After Life is an extraordinary book, one that is rightfully described using big words like dazzling and stunning and jaw-dropping. So thank goodness Atkinson has written a companion to Life After Life, in which we get to spend more time with Ursula, and especially Teddy, around whom A God in Ruins is set. And I promise I won’t be waiting a ridiculous amount of time to read that one.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Black Swan. This did not affect my review.

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