My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Life after Life is a story about a baby, a child and a woman called Ursula who is gifted, or cursed, with the reliving of the same life and the ability to remember her previous lives. The story spans two world wars and its robust historical context provides a tumultuous and fascinating stage for the lives of Ursula and her family, lovers, friends and foe.
In each life, the protagonist effects a change in response to the last, and profound questions are raised both in her individual life stories and as a philosophical theme throughout the book about whether we have the capacity to change our fates and if we did, would it really matter?
It took me seventy pages to get into the story as it leaps across time and lives. This may just be my de-cluttering from the last book I read or a rather slow warming up period to adapt to a new type of narrative structure. But once I was in, I was definitely in and my struggle was rewarded handsomely.
I found the meditative circular rhythm of the many-ended story simply entrancing, soothing and strangely nourishing. Atkinson’s deliciously sophisticated structure serves to build up intrigue in Ursula’s life choices, events and relationships and a commitment to staying with her and finding out if she could and should make a difference.
I only finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and while the concept, structure and context of the story has stayed with me, the characters are long gone and I’m struggling to remember their names. This is unusual for me. I normally remember people, even fictional ones.
Ursula has several lovers in various lives, but I did not get a sense that any of them were significant and they were quite forgettable. The only real tenderness seems to be for her brothers and her father Hugh, who was perhaps her only true love. I could attribute this to a learnt mistrust of men but her female relationships are all quite absent of emotion at the same time.
There is a distance in each character that keeps them on the historical stage, rather than bringing them to life. If it were only one or two characters, I’d assume it were intentional, but as it is most of them, for me, perhaps there is something about writing people into history and in emphasising the popular notion of a ‘stiff upper lip’ war-time mentality, contact with the frailty of human emotion is sacrificed or lost.
Having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Life after Life. It is a brilliantly engaging novel for its intelligent narrative structure, grounding historical context and the philosophical questions it tantalisingly toys with on the cyclical nature of life and its infinite possibilities.