Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, in a rural town in England, into a loving family of her mother and father and older brother and sister. At least, most of the time she is born on that day – sometimes she dies in childbirth, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck during a snowstorm that prevents the local doctor from arriving to help. Thus begins the unique and wondrous repeating life of Ursula. Each time she dies – whether while being born or later in life – she starts over, on an identical snowy February day in 1910.
Ursula doesn’t remember these multiple lives, though she often has a sense of déjà vu that worries her mother and fascinates the psychologist her mother hires. And sometimes, she has a strong feeling to act in a certain way at a particular moment, not realizing that vague past memories are telling her that this moment is a critical turning point for her or her loved ones.
So, Ursula’s life goes on (and on). She enjoys an idyllic childhood with lots of sisters and brothers, playing in the meadows and woods around her home. Adolescence brings with it the usual growing pains, plus some of those critical turning points in her life. As an adult, Ursula lives through the horrors of World War II, living in London during the Blitz in most of her lives, and Atkinson’s attention to historical detail is riveting. Each of her family members grows up to live his or her own life, too.
I was riveted by Ursula’s story right from the beginning. One of the things that most fascinated me about this book (or any novel that plays with this sort of re-living theme) is how thought-provoking it was. Of course, the reader’s thoughts automatically turn to, “What if it this happened to me?” In this case, though, I was also captivated by the turning points in Ursula’s lives and the many different paths that her life took. A tiny, trivial decision – whether or not to take a walk on a lovely spring day, for example – could turn out to affect many people’s lives for many years to come. It’s endlessly fascinating to consider – and actually see in this case – the path not taken. As I suspected, this would be a wonderful book to discuss with a book group.
In some cases, Ursula’s many deaths are easy for her to avoid in the next life (thanks to those strange “feelings” and urges she gets). At other times, she lives through the same moment many different times, with different actions still ending with the same result. That’s an old time-travel tenet, that sometimes fate is stubborn and things will still end up the same way no matter what you do. In other cases, all it takes is a minor change in Ursula’s actions or those of someone near her, to save her life and drastically change its direction.
In addition to examining these small moments in one person’s life, the novel also looks at the bigger picture of world events. What’s the #1 thing people say they would do if they could go back in time? Kill Hitler before the Holocaust takes place, right? Atkinson plays with that common daydream in a unique way. The novel opens in 1930, with Ursula as a young woman in a café in Germany, sitting with Hitler, apparently quite familiar with him, and suddenly removing a gun from her purse and shooting him. How can you not read more after that opening?
With all those multiple lives and storylines, it could have been a confusing story, but Atkinson labels each chapter with the date, starts over in February 1910 whenever Ursula starts over, and includes a table of contents at the front that is very handy if you do need to go back and remind yourself of what happened on a certain date in a previous life. She also does a great job of keeping the story from becoming redundant. Once you are familiar with Ursula’s early life, the author just stops quickly at certain key points to remind you where Ursula is and then continues the story of Ursula’s latest life wherever it departs from the previous ones.
From the historical what-ifs to the minute details of one person’s life, this novel is absolutely compelling from beginning to end. It was one of those rare books that I wanted to read in big gulps so I could find out what happened but that I also wanted to slow down toward the end so that I could make it last. It is a chest-hugger book, the kind that I finished with a big sigh and just clutched it to my chest (yes, I am a giant book nerd). Life After Life combines realistic fiction with historical fiction and a dose of the supernatural into an epic, amazing story of how one woman’s life can change the lives around her, and even the world, and how the smallest decisions can be major turning points in a life. It is one of my favorite books read in a long time!
NOTE: The day I finished reading Life After Life, I heard on one of my favorite book podcasts that Kate Aktinson has written a companion novel, A God in Ruins, that focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy. The new novel will be released in May 2015. I’ve already told my husband that I want it for Mother’s Day!
529 pages, Back Bay Books