What if you got to live your life over and over again, until you got it right? This is the intriguing premise grounding Kate Atkinson’s stunning new novel, Life After Life. Ursula Beresford Todd is born in a country house in 1910. The first time, the doctor doesn’t make it; the roads are closed with snow, and Ursula dies before she ever really lives. The next time, the doctor arrives in the nick of time, and she makes it. This idea of small tweaks leading to big changes permeates the novel. For Ursula, the question isn’t always whether she lives or dies, but how she does these things. Does she go to secretarial school, or university? Does she marry the English schoolteacher, the German lawyer, or live in sin with an admiral?
Because of this, the novel has a cyclical feel, looping back around to the last big decision as you wait to see how things will be different this time. This structure also allows Atkinson to introduce multiple fascinating characters, who themselves change in the various retellings of Ursula’s story: her sister, Pamela, warm-hearted with a keen scientific mind; Benjamin Cole, the cute Jewish boy who lives next door; even her mother, Sylvie, whose nature is so shaded and difficult to predict.
Not only is Life After Life a fascinating story, it benefits immensely from Atkinson’s telling. Best known to the Masterpiece Theatre set for her Case Histories (adapted starring Harry Potter’s Jason Isaacs), Atkinson is a confident storyteller, with an eye for character and ear for prose. Her writing style is lyrical without being pretentious, elegant in containing no unnecessary parts. Even if she weren’t telling such an interesting story, it would still be a pleasure to read.
As to the ultimate question—how do you know when you’ve finally gotten it right?—Atkinson provides no easy answers. In fact, you might say she shows how that is the wrong question to even ask. Instead, she shows the trade-offs and compromises inherent in any life, and asks us to decide which ones are worth it in the end.
You can buy Life After Life in bookstores, or at amazon.com.