Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Published 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books
544 pages, historical fiction, magical realism.
The premise of this book is that Ursula Todd, born in England in 1911 dies at birth...and then starts over in the same time and place. This happens over and over, life after life. At first, it's just luck and coincidence that changes her fate, but as she repeats different stages, a sense of premonition or deja vu starts to influence her actions and decisions. (I think the change that brings me the most relief involves her socking an older boy who tries to kiss her on her 16th birthday, preventing a rather horrible rape/abortion/death by infection storyline from playing out.)
This was my second audiobook after many years without them. I am really glad I listened to it instead of reading it, because I know myself--I'm a skimmer. If I'd had to read the bit where Ursula is born a dozen times, there's pretty much no way I would have done so carefully enough to appreciate the small adjustments and changes. If anything, I would have been annoyed at the repetition, as it sounds like other reviewers were. Having the book read to me (in a lovely British accent, no less) helped me to appreciate the beauty of Atkinson's language, the poetic rhythms and recurring motifs.
Ursula's many journeys, and her confused attempts to change her fate, make a fascinating story. I'm surprised it wasn't harder to keep track of timelines and lifetimes, but even with frequent flashbacks and asides within each timeline, the actual story is easy enough to follow--even as it twists and winds and doubles back on itself.
The slower pace of listening also let me think more carefully not only about the different lives Ursula leads, but also how the people in her life are presented. I started out feeling connected to Sylvie and suspicious of Hugh; by the end that was entirely reversed. How did the woman who came up with the whimsical and unconventional "Fox Corners" become a bitter and judgmental termagant? How did the straitlaced young banker who objected to the house's name on the grounds that it was not a name already in use become the gently tolerant paterfamilias? Another train of thought follows Ursula's siblings. They remain constant from story to story, but why is it that Morris so unpleasant throughout his entire life while Teddy is sweetly charming, also from birth?
I also found it interesting to see who else was and was not a constant in her many lives. One lover shows up over and over again, while the rest might be a missed opportunity in one life, a regrettable mistake in another. Neighborhood friends are inevitable, but friends and acquaintances met elsewhere shift and shimmer like mirages.
World Wars I and II are always ripe for bittersweet storytelling, between the lost flower of England and the stubborn courage of the Blitz. To my American ears, the language and attitudes of the eras sounded pitch perfect. I enjoyed the accent of my narrator, although I'm sure I miss some of the implications of different types of diction. The family is classically educated, quoting poetry and speaking French with ease. I wonder if English readers would find the book more deeply nostalgic and personally relatable, a mirror as opposed to the window it was to me.
This book won several minor awards and was the Goodread's Choice winner for 2013.
If you were allowed to start your life over, what different choices might you make? (Presumably none of us have DIED from our choices, but Ursula does take some actions that affect others' fates as well, or that change less drastic bits of her life. )