The novel has an unusual structure, repeatedly looping back in time to describe alternative possible lives for its central character, Ursula Todd, who is born on 11 February 1910 to an upper-middle-class family near Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. In the first version, she is strangled by her umbilical cord and stillborn. In later iterations of her life she dies as a child – drowning in the sea, or when saved from that falling to her death from the roof when trying to retrieve a fallen doll. Then there are several sequences when she falls victim to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 – which repeats itself again and again, though she already has a foreknowledge of it, and only her fourth attempt to avert catching the flu succeeds.
Then there is an unhappy life where she is traumatized by being raped, getting pregnant and undergoing an illegal abortion, and finally becoming trapped in a highly oppressive marriage, and being killed by her abusive husband when trying to escape. In later lives she averts all this by being premptively aggressive to the would-be rapist. In between, she also uses her half-memory of earlier lives to avert the neighbor girl Nancy being raped and murdered by a child molester. The saved Nancy would have an important role in Ursula’s later life(s), forming a deep love relationship with Ursula’s brother Teddy, and would become a main character in the sequel, “A God in Ruins”.
Still later iterations of Ursula’s her life take her into World War Two, where she works in London for the War Office and repeatedly witnesses the results of the Blitz including a direct hit on a bomb shelter in Argyll Road in November 1940 – with herself being among the victims in some lives and among the rescuers in others. There is also a life in which she marries a German in 1934, is unable to return to England and experiences the war in Berlin under the allied bombings.
Ursula eventually comes to realize, through a particularly strong sense of deja vu, that she has lived before, and decides to try to prevent the war by killing Adolf Hitler in late 1930. Memory of her earlier lives also provides the means of doing that: the knowledge that by befriending Eva Braun – in 1930 an obscure shop girl in Munich – Ursula would be able to get close to Hitler with a loaded gun in her bag; the inevitable price, however, is to be herself shot to death by Hitler’s Nazi followers immediately after killing him.
What is left unclear – since each of the time sequences end with “darkness” and Ursula’s death and does not show what followed – is whether in fact all these lives actually occurred in an objective world, or were only subjectively experienced by her. Specifically, whether or not her killing Hitler in 1930 actually produced an altered timeline where the Nazis did not take power in Germany, or possibly took power under a different leader with a different course of the Second World War. Though in her 1967 incarnation Ursula speculates with her nephew on this “might have been”, the book avoids giving a clear answer.
“Kate Atkinson is a marvel. There aren’t enough breathless adjectives to describe Life After Life: Dazzling, witty, moving, joyful, mournful, profound. Wildly inventive, deeply felt. Hilarious. Humane. Simply put: It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this century.”―Gillian Flynn, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Gone Girl
“Life After Life is a masterpiece about how even the smallest choices can sometimes change the course of history. It’s wise, bittersweet, funny, and unlike anything else you’ve ever read. Kate Atkinson is one of my all-time favorite novelists, and I believe this is her best book yet.”―J. Courtney Sullivan, bestselling author of Maine and Commencement
“Kate Atkinson’s new novel is a box of delights. Ingenious in construction, indefatigably entertaining, it grips the reader’s imagination on the first page and never lets go. If you wish to be moved and astonished, read it. And if you want to give a dazzling present, buy it for your friends.”―Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
“An audacious, ambitious book that challenges notions of time, fate and free will, not to mention narrative plausibility…[Atkinson’s] writing is funny and quirky and sharp and sad – calamity laced with humor – and full of quietly heroic characters who offer knowing Lorrie Moore-esque parenthetical asides…Atkinson’s true genius is structure…Each version is entirely and equally credible.”―Sarah Lyall, New York Times
“An exercise in narrative gutsiness; a meditation on history, contingency, and free will; and the best new novel I’ve read this year.”―Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine
“[Atkinson’s] latest novel, Life After Life, is her very best… A big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author’s fully untethered imagination… Even without the sleight of hand, Life After Life would be an exceptionally captivating book with an engaging cast of characters… [Atkinson’s] own writerly cradle was rocked by a very sure hand indeed.”―Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Audacious, the kind of sweeping virtuoso epic that actually earns overheated book-jacket phrases like ‘tour de force!’…Atkinson is a fantastic storyteller… It’s all so richly imagined and ingeniously executed that the mystery feels right. Her domestic vignettes and wide-screen portraits of wartime resonate with startling physical and emotional clarity, and even her repetitions find fresh revelations… What Atkinson has mastered: shining a light on how full life is of choices and chance, and how lucky we are to live it.”―Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“The Blitz segments vibrate with life, as vivid and horrifying as a series of glimpses into a charnel house…The natural exuberance of Atkinson’s prose is brought into sharp, precise control. Buried inside Life After Life is the best Blitz novel since Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch.”―Steve Donoghue, The Washington Post
“Fascinating… A tour de force that ponders memory and déjà vu-and puts history on a very human scale.”―Parade
“[Atkinson] is nothing if not clever…A fine writer…filling the pages with a liveliness and intelligence…Ursula’s quest to ‘get it right’ gradually becomes less important than Atkinson’s talent to create such an entertaining and suspenseful story that tells many versions of the history of the 20th century.”―Bob Hoover, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
About the Author
Kate Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was named England’s Whitbread Book of the Year in 1996. Since then, she has written seven more ground-breaking, bestselling books, most recently Started Early, Took My Dog. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Top customer reviews
This fascinating novel is based on the premise that death isn’t necessarily forever. The central character, Ursula Todd, is born on a snowy night in England in 1910. In the first account of this, she dies almost immediately, strangled by the umbilical cord with no doctor or midwife to help her mother through the birth. In the next account, the doctor has arrived, the umbilical cord is cut, and the baby lives. And so on and so forth — Ursula’s life follows a different pattern each time, which leads to her death but then to a new pattern.
The book is full of philosophical questions, but they do not intrude; it works brilliantly as a novel. The narrative carries the reader right along with the strongest of hooks: what will happen next (time)? The descriptions of time and place are haunting, particularly those of World War II London. The characters are rounded, and some engaged at least this reader emotionally. And they are diverse — Ursula, of course, is not the only one whose life follows a different pattern in her various iterations, and it becomes almost a game to figure out what has changed for which character. The ending is mysterious, but that is appropriate a novel that explores so many possibilities.
It’s time travel. No, it’s not that. It’s science fiction. No, not that either. It’s literary genius. Yes, it is definitely that. This is the (somewhat convoluted) story of Ursula Todd, who is born (and born again and again and again) on February 11, 1910. Ursula has the decidedly uncommon ability to be born again after death.
She comes back as the same baby in the same family and with the same life, but a strong sense of deja vu allows her to correct mistakes and avert tragedies that plagued her earlier lives–until she is finally able to do the ultimate deed for humanity. But does she really succeed and change history?
This is an intriguing, very readable book that seems so real and actually feasible–even though you know it’s absolutely not. (Or is it?) Best of all, it’s funny! And that is quite a feat considering the bulk of the story takes place during the brutality of World War II, especially the Blitz in London.
This book is a testament to author Kate Atkinson’s imagination, storytelling creativity and literary genius. Read it!
Everyone will have their own interpretation of the meaning of this book. It certainly precipitates thought and discussion. It’s about possibilities, and the role of choices, and the role of chance in life. It’s also about the power of the novelist to lure the reader — and perhaps herself — into that “willing suspension of disbelief” that critics talk about. The interweaving of many stories makes us understand the power that stories have over us.
This all sounds very trendy, but the book is fascinating — if the reader can tolerate some perplexity.