Warning: there are a few small spoilers in this review.
If you had the chance to redo your life, what would you change? Is there a specific moment that altered the course of your life, for better or worse? In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson explores these questions through the character of Ursula Todd, an Englishwoman living outside of London during the early 20th century.
Ursula dies continually and is reborn continually, every time on a snowy February evening in 1910, and every time to the same family. As she lives her various existences, Ursula has premonition-like feelings that change her choices and oftentimes extend that specific lifetime: where in one life she jumps out of a window to save a doll her brother threw, in another she hides her doll for safe-keeping and avoids the fatal fall. While it is unclear if she ever truly remembers her past lives, Ursula’s strange fears are compared to déjà vu, and I liked the idea that perhaps that odd, familiar feeling we all experience is from a past life lived under similar circumstances.
Indeed, it was interesting that Ursula’s circumstances change very little throughout the novel. With the exception of an extended stint in Germany, she spends most of her lives at home (Fox Corner), and in London. She holds many of the same jobs, and meets many of the same people. While parts of the narrative become tedious and, obviously, repetitive, I liked that Atkinson decided to stick with a traditional family, in a traditional setting. The premise of the novel added a sci-fi feeling, but it wasn’t overdone. I think the novel’s themes wouldn’t have come across as clearly if the protagonist had been a superhero, or living in a post-apocalyptic world, or something else extraordinary. Instead, Ursula was just a normal person, living a normal life, except for the fact she was able to live more than one. It showed both the immediate importance and ultimate trivialness of our every day decisions.
It is strange, though, that I felt so detached from Ursula in a novel that followed her so closely. While the other characters were so solidly developed that they grounded the spastic narrative, Ursula came across as a hollow vessel simply living different versions of one life. Except for her sudden fears and premonitions, I didn’t know much about her personality. I felt much more connected to the people she felt connected to: her father, her aunt, and a couple of her siblings. By the end, I wanted Ursula to finally be happy, but I really didn’t care that much what happened to her.
While her lack of personality is disheartening, it makes sense that Ursula was portrayed as a hollow vessel, as she was basically a puppet for Atkinson to put different outfits on (and I’m not sure that any fit her best). There is definitely playfulness to the writing, with Atkinson making fun of her own repetition (“Darkness fell, and so on” when Ursula dies for the umpteenth time). The novel reads almost like the contents of an author’s trash bin, not in the sense that it is bad writing, but that it is written over again so many times, sometimes with only a slight detail changed. While I was a bit disappointed that the ending lacked a sense of finality in Ursula’s story, I liked that the book could be seen as a commentary on writing, as well as life, since I believe that the best writing mimics life.
Near the end, Ursula calls life a palimpsest and that is exactly what this book is. It is one story written over another, time and time again, perhaps in an attempt to achieve the perfect version. But is there a perfect version? If you could do your life over and over again, do you think you’d ever feel like you had gotten it completely right? Perhaps that is the point of the book and its somewhat lackluster ending: no matter how many revisions you make, your life, and writing, will never be perfect.
What did you think about this book? And if you could relive your life, would you?