Monday, April 13, 2015

Life After Life

Two covers - I read the one on the left, but prefer the one on the right.

I read Kate Atchison's Life After Life with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Read Alongs group.  It's not a book that was on my TBR list nor radar, but I am so glad that it was selected and that I found the time to read it.

I am a big fan of time-travel books, and have loved this notion for as long as I can remember. Life After Life is time-travel with what was to me a unique twist.  Actually the premise is really akin to that of the Groundhog Day movie in that the protagonist, Ursula Todd, repeatedly dies and is reborn on the same day in February 1910 and to the same parents in the same place in England.

Sometimes she lives for a number of years, sometimes decades, and sometimes she dies shortly after birth.   Over time she starts to remember previous lives--not completely or mostly even consciously, especially at first, but more in a deja-vu sort of way.  She develops an instinct for avoiding the circumstances that ended her life previously, and so is able to chart the course of her life to some degree, although she cannot control all the variables, and sometimes avoiding one situation either makes no difference or actually causes something else to happen with similar or worse consequences.

Ursula lives through (sometimes) WWI as a young child, the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, the rise of fascism, and WWII (that's a particularly deadly time for her!).  She has a couple of brothers, a wonderful sister, friends, lovers, parents, and employers.  Some people she encounters in every life, some are only present in certain threads.

This is a terrific premise, and Atchison did a masterful job in creating a narrative arc that incorporated the multiple threads of the same life being lived repeatedly but with variation.  I was fascinated by both Ursula's lives and how Atchison handled this very difficult narrative.

There were a few confusing elements--it really helped to have a weekly session in which I could discuss my thoughts and debate certain plot points with others reading the book (i.e., great book club book!)--but overall this book really gave me a lot to think about, such as how much does one specific reaction or event affect the overall course of your life and that of others.  If I had the chance to "do it over," what would I actually try to do differently?

It was interesting to compare this book to Stephen King's 11/22/63, in which the time-travelling protagonist consciously sets out to change the course of history by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Ursula does not try to repeat her lives--she doesn't have control over the fact that she is reliving her life--but she does try to change things, once she realizes, however vaguely, that she can.

I couldn't help but see a moral or spiritual  lesson in Life After Life.  On the one hand, it seemed to boil down to the notion "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," but I also thought there was a sense of being on the path to nirvana through self-awareness and then self-sacrifice.  My interpretation of Ursula as she matured through living her life multiple times was that initially the changes she made were to make her life better, but later the changes were to make the lives of her family and friends better, and then finally to make the world a better, safer place.  Like just about everything in this book, though, this is open to interpretation.

As you can tell, this is not a cut-and-dry novel.  No real wrapping up of loose ends.  Certainly no closure.  But, a well-written, creative, thought-provoking story that I found very satisfying despite its ambiguity.

I'm eager to read more by this author, and already got a copy of Case Histories, from 2004.


  1. Thanks for reminding me about this book! When it first came out, the hold list for it at the library was forever-long, and I never got around to reading it. But I bet I can pick up a copy now. :)

  2. I love all Kate Atkinson's books. I've read all but two of them now, and every single one is great. There's a companion novel to Life After Life coming out later this year. It's called A God in Ruins and focuses on Teddy.

    1. A God in Ruins sounds really good--thanks for the heads up on it.

  3. I really enjoy time travel stories of this type. This one sounds very good.

    As you allude to, these kind of tales really get one thinking about life and choices.

    Interesting that the book dos not have a defined ending. I find that if handled well that can be a positive.