Monday, September 2, 2013

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

I dearly appreciate the book recommendations my friends share with me, and that is what led me to Kate Atkinson's newest novel, where Ursula Todd dies, and gets multiple chances to relive her life in its entirety.

Born into an upper middle class family in 1910, in a well romanticized English countryside, Ursula experiences her first reincarnation almost immediately, as she is born strangled by her own cord. Immediately the birthing scene begins anew, but this time Ursula survives the birth. As her life continues, she dies again. After multiple restarts on her own chronology, the child Ursula begins to feel imminent threats to her core, the vibrations of where her previous life lead her to her death, attempting to guide her away.

It's a very interesting concept. Ursula is seemingly the agent of most of the changes that either extend her own, or her family members' lives. Atkinson's novel never offers a reason for Ursula's reincarnations. It's an interesting use of magical realism to show the drama within the seemingly simple choices we make, and how they can effect our nearest and dearest. There is wisdom and economy in the various tellings of this family's experiences as they navigate The Great War, coming of age, abuse, and World War II.

Atkinson paints a fabulously sentimental picture of English country life, family love, and the Civil Defense during The Blitz. It's a lovely novel, but not perfect. There's a certain climactic moment where it crosses into alternate history, and this felt cliche. Ursula's changes were so focused onto the Todd's chronology, their survival specifically. It felt overly dramatic to suddenly have Ursula trying to change the course of global history, when her siblings are born again and again into the same jobs, the same marriages. It just didn't seem consistent with the nature of the other changes that Ursula puts into motion during her reincarnations.

Some incarnations follow up with some characters, and others leave their lives hanging, seeking only to resolve an issue brought up by the most recently ended "life". In this manner, I can understand why certain reviewers are comparing the novel to our childhood 'choose your own adventure' reads. Atkinson panders to our consumptive tendencies to seek out stories that have very clearly defined resolution (ie, Ursula manages to avoid the man she had married and whom subjects her to domestic violence in a previous incarnation).

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed reading about the Todds; Atkinson really beautifully plays with the different dynamics their relationships (as siblings, parents and children) could evolve into throughout each new incarnation Ursula experiences. The narrative does not suffer from a feeling of repetition, either. Every new start just added a new layer of familiarity and emotional connectivity to the family.

I feel like Life After Life is a very approachable novel due to its historical content and sensitivity for family relationships, and would be an enjoyable read for book club discussion. It just betrayed itself by stepping a little too far into the realm of alternate history.

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