Ursula Todd, the heroine of Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE, is born and dies more than a dozen times in the novel. She is always born on February 11, 1910, in the midst of a crippling snowstorm. Sometimes she dies right afterwards, due to the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Or she lives to a relatively advanced age, surviving two world wars and a host of other hazards.
Ursula, a perceptive young woman who has always been a bit of an observer --- the middle child in her bustling household --- eventually grows more and more aware of her bizarre life story/ies. Even if she doesn't actively remember the lives that have preceded the one she's living now, she still suffers from a tremendous feeling of déjà vu, so strong and upsetting at times that her mother takes her to a Buddhist therapist, who offers sympathy if not precisely answers.
"[Atkinson] has built on the sprawling, multi-dimensional characteristics of her detective fiction in this novel...as she gradually introduces readers not only to Ursula's vivid inner life but also to the dozens of people whose lives she touches, time after time. LIFE AFTER LIFE is Kate Atkinson at her brilliantly inventive best."
At times, Ursula's growing self-awareness can lead to moments of black humor; when she and her family members keep dying of Spanish flu, for example, young Ursula grows increasingly desperate (if not exactly sophisticated) in her efforts to prevent this outcome from happening in perpetuity. Elsewhere, though, Ursula eventually develops --- whether she is aware of it or not --- the ability to recognize the patterns not only of her own life but of the world in which she has grown up again and again.
Ursula is born into a country house, a life of privilege. Her father fights in the Great War, and her older brother is (regardless of which life she’s living) an unlikable, distant, even sometimes cruel young man. Ursula is alternately fascinated and embarrassed by her father's younger sister, whose rising and falling fortunes sometimes seem to mimic Ursula's own. As a young woman coming of age in the volatile interwar period, Ursula is vulnerable to any number of obstacles --- rape, unwanted pregnancy, illegal abortion, harassment, despair, inadequate education --- all of which she encounters on one or more of her journeys through history.
But Ursula has an advantage that none of the rest of us has --- she can learn from her mistakes and those of her friends, family and acquaintances. "What if we had a chance to do it again and again," her younger brother Teddy asks Ursula at one point, "until we finally did get it right?" "I think it would be exhausting," replies Ursula, and she's right --- particularly as she relives the harrowing bombings of World War II on both the German and British sides of the war, forced to confront enough horrors for dozens of lifetimes. Eventually, though, Ursula realizes that she just might be able not only to witness history but also to reshape the madness around her, to give not only herself but also countless others another chance at life. "This is love," Ursula reflects as she embarks on one more chance to improve the world, "And the practice of it makes it perfect."
Kate Atkinson, who won the Whitbread Award for her debut novel, BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM, has taken a bit of a break from literary fiction over the past several years to write a series of innovative and unusual detective novels. With LIFE AFTER LIFE, she returns to some of the considerations of her earlier fiction, particularly about the inner life of children and about how wars and the deaths of children affect families and women in particular. But she has built on the sprawling, multi-dimensional characteristics of her detective fiction in this novel as well, as she gradually introduces readers not only to Ursula's vivid inner life but also to the dozens of people whose lives she touches, time after time. LIFE AFTER LIFE is Kate Atkinson at her brilliantly inventive best.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 5, 2013