Life After Life has received a fair amount of publicity and critical acclaim, having won the Costa book award and been nominated for a number of others. I quite enjoy novels themed around time travel, reincarnation and past lives as I’m a bit obsessed with the whole idea of life not being straightforward and linear as it seems. This seemed like something a little bit different, and I wanted to give it a try.
Life After Life is a big, bold novel. Part family saga, part war epic and partly an examination of parallel universes and reincarnation, it is certainly an ambitious feat.
The novel begins with a prologue which instantly draws the reader in, as we find a woman, Ursula, in a small German cafe, assassinating Hitler with her father’s Great War revolver.
The book then skips back 20 years, from 1930 to 1910, and we read about a child who was born on a snowy night, but died after just a few moments in the world due her to umbilical cord wrapping tight around her neck.
The next chapter is on the same night again, but this time the child is born and lives. And so, the premise is set, with the entire novel following this vein. We follow the child Ursula and her family as she grows up, living out her life time and time again.
The first part of the novel mainly takes the form of a family saga, albeit with some jumping around different time zones. Family sagas are not something I usually particularly enjoy, but Atkinson breathes such life into her characters with her writing that I was completely charmed by life at Fox Corner, and I found Ursula and her family truly believable and relatable.
Then we get to the bulk of the novel which is set during wartime. Through the various different lives, Atkinson shows us aspects of the war from many different points of view; at one point Ursula is married to a Nazi and living in Munich, regularly socialising with Eva Braun and even Hitler himself. In another ‘reincarnation’ she is living in London during the Blitz, doing her bit to help out as a member of a rescue squad, working through the night attempting to rescue members of the public from the devastation which the bombs bring. Through her multiple lives, Atkinson does an amazing job at capturing how truly devastating the war was, both in Germany and in Britain, and her depictions of the London Blitz are incredibly vivid and harrowing.
The novel explores romantic exploits too, although I would in no way call it a romantic story. During her many lives Ursula experiences many different entanglements, including an incident of sexual abuse at a young age, a violent husband, an affair with an older married officer and a romance with an injured war veteran.
It’s difficult to review this novel as I normally would, with an outline of the storyline, due to its non-linear approach. The book’s structure reminded me of The Time Traveller’s Wife, jumping between different times so that the reader is perplexed as to whether the part they are reading now took place before or after the part that they have just read. This is a structure which works fine for me, and I enjoy, but I know some people can find it a little disconcerting.
What I felt it did extremely well was show how much small, insignificant moments can change the entire course of one’s life. Ursula lives out many different lives due to changes she makes, some small and some much bigger. Each time, as she has more knowledge about what happened previously, she generally manages to change her life for the better, although the book in no way ties everything up into a nice, neat happy ending. There are certainly questions left unanswered, but not in a way which is frustrating to the reader. Maybe the answers play out in another book, in another life.
Even if you don’t think that the themes in this book are your usual cup of tea, I would recommend giving it a try. Life After Life tells a story which defies genres, and I believe has something which appeals to everyone. It is bleak but at the same time heartwarming; spontaneous and yet pragmatic and, within it, Atkinson deftly blends humour with tragedy to make a novel which offers something truly special.