Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

6th Mar 2013

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Since winning the Whitbread Prize for her debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the MuseumKate Atkinson has become a familiar name on bestseller lists, both with her detective series featuring Jackson Brodie and with her standalone novels.

Her latest novel has been eagerly awaited by many and, although many much-hyped novels turn out to be a slight disappointment, Life After Life is definitely not one of them.

A baby is born on 11th February 1910 in a the midst of a snowstorm, strangled by the umbilical cord. She dies instantly. She is born again, in another life, and lives to be named Ursula Todd, the ‘Little Bear’.

Ursula will die several times throughout her childhood, but each time another Ursula will use the “awful sense of dread” that she experiences on occasion to learn to avoid death, and the darkness, for a little longer.

For the first part of the book, the chapters are short and cyclical; with each death, the narrative returns to 11th February 1910. Ursula is forced to resort to increasingly desperate measures the ensure that darkness will not fall on her young life again, at least not in the way that it has done before.

By the time that World War I is over, she has negotiated her way through a maze of both real and potential deaths, including drowning, falling and Spanish ‘Flu. Life is not easy for the Little Bear.

Atkinson never shies away from writing painful scenes and the situations that Ursula faces as she gets older are sometimes horrific, especially during World War II, when she both becomes, and doesn’t become, a warden with the ARP.

Ursula’s experiences in the aftermath of air raids highlight the oft-forgotten, crucial, and frequently gruesome, part that women on the Home Front played in the war.

Ursula is a wonderful character – intelligent, measured, occasionally impulsive, fallible and utterly human. It’s almost impossible not to be affected by some of the decisions that she makes, knowing that they will lead to her death, but it’s also fascinating to see where the alterations that she makes in the next version of her life will lead her.

There is only one occasion in the novel that she chooses the darkness over life and it’s all the more moving because it’s the only choice left available to her.

Atkinson doesn’t neglect secondary characters, and it’s easy to love Ursula’s favourite siblings, Pamela and Teddy. Atkinson is a master of playing with perceptions and delaying truths until she feels the time is right for them to be revealed, which means that although the  fates of most of the characters stay the same throughout Ursula’s many lives, it isn’t always easy to predict what these fates will be.

A hugely life-affirming read... In the hands of a lesser writer, Life After Life could have been terrible – cliché-laden, repetitive and sensationalist. However, Atkinson has a skill for creating complex narratives peopled with very human characters, and for writing with a warmth which can make the most disturbing of situations readable.

This is a novel in which the main protagonist dies several times, often in horrible ways. That it is a hugely life-affirming read is a testament to the talent of its author. I’m gushing now but it’s hard not to. The book is brilliant. Go, read it.

Life After Life is published on 7th March in hardback by Doubleday and is available from Foyles, Amazon, or your local independent bookshop priced at £18.99. A ebook edition is also available, priced at £8.50.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended for: Anyone looking for an excellently-written novel which justifies its hype.

Other recommended reads: Kate Atkinson’s award-winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the MuseumSarah Waters‘ excellent story of women in 1940s London,  The Night Watch.

Sarah Chapman