Book review: Life After Life

Katie Read reviews Katie Atkinson's 2013 mystery novel.

15th February 2016

Life After Life, the 2013 novel from Kate Atkinson, offers a fresh insight into the mystery genre – how would your life be affected if you had made a different choice? Is your fate set from the moment of your birth, or could things have gone differently?

"Life after life also highlights the ever-present dangers in life, people who are not what they seem"

   The story begins on a cold, snowy night in 1910. Sylvie Todd is in labour and the doctor can’t make it to her in the snow. Her baby soon dies, and ‘darkness fell’. The next chapter starts with the same scene, Sylvie Todd in labour, the snow outside, but this time, the doctor is able to reach her in time and her baby lives. At least for a while. Each part gives a snapshot in the life of Ursula Todd, the baby given a second chance at life.

   Atkinson weaves the story around stages in Ursula’s life and show how far these events affect her life and cause her death. Each time, the segment ends with ‘darkness fell’ and then Ursula is given a second chance at the critical moment to change the outcome, even ending up in war-torn Berlin in 1945. Though some parts seem a bit too far-fetched, such as Ursula ending up at Hitler’s mountain retreat as a friend of Eva Braun and with a high-ranking Nazi official for a husband, the overall story is brilliant. Atkinson is able to write about many issues, including attitudes towards rape and abusive marriages in the mid-20th Century, which are intertwined with the idyllic picture of Ursula’s comfortable upper middle class family life.

"Atkinson is able to write about many issues, including attitudes towards rape and abusive marriages"

   While the premise of Life After Life seems as though it could disengage the reader’s interest, its actually very compelling in its ability to draw the reader into the story. The reader is always able to empathise with Ursula even though her story changes drastically at each new start and the ending is always completely unpredictable. The non-linear structure of the novel, also a break from ‘normal’ literary techniques, supports the theme of fate and renewal.

   In all, I really would really recommend this book – yes, it is just pure fiction, but it does get you wondering, what if? What if you’d chosen to do something differently, or if something that was out of your control hadn’t actually happened? Where would you be now? With who? Although the book starts again so many times, Ursula and her family members remain the same, allowing them to remain likeable, an anchor in the constantly changing novel. Life After Life also highlights the ever-present dangers in life, the people who are not what they seem, bombarded London during the Blitz where two seconds could mean the difference between life and death.

"Each part gives a snapshot in the life of ursula todd, the baby given a second chance at life"

   Kate Atkinson is also the author of the Case Histories series featuring the detective Jackson Brodie. These books are also fantastic, so rather than just recommend this book, I would recommend Kate Atkinson as an author – try any one of them! Also, the “sequel” of Life After Life came out last year under the title A God in Ruins, and features the younger brother of Ursula.

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