Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
by Kate Atkinson
Bond Street Books, 2013
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wonder how my life would be different now if . . . “? Has an inexplicable intuition ever led you away from danger? Have you ever said, “If I had my life to live over, I would . . .”.
Those are common human thoughts and experiences. Most, if not all, of us have thought them or felt them. Kate Atkinson builds her story, Life After Life, upon the tug of those universal emotions. Her main character, Ursula Todd, lives and re-lives her life in a notable time. She navigates and re-navigates her way through family tensions, relationship struggles and war.
Like the movie, Groundhog Day, the narrative arc needs to be handled deftly to avoid becoming a confusing, disjointed disaster. Atkinson unfolds the plot evenly and links us back to characters, so we don’t feel lost. She drops in teasing hints of lives to come to keep readers engaged. She allows her characters to make mistakes and suffer setbacks. Just when that begins to feel a little discouraging, her characters savour small victories.
I liked that Atkinson writes of the horrors of the Second World War, from both the German and the British points of view, with brutal clarity. I liked that Atkinson has her characters react to differing circumstances—an excellent way to build complex characters. I like the existential premise of the story. Generally, I liked her plotting, but the story would have been much more satisfying if it had built to a clear, positive outcome.
I found the ending very unsatisfying. Unlike Groundhog Day (which is my favourite movie of all time, and one I believe to be seriously under-appreciated, by the way), I was not left with the feeling that the main character had evolved in a significant way, but rather that eventually she stumbled upon one slightly better outcome. I was not left with the feeling that the characters had developed more compassion, or humility, or ability to relate to other human beings. Worst of all, I was left with the feeling that it wasn’t the end, and that this cycle would carry on indefinitely. What a feeling of futility!
This book is entertaining, though-provoking and well-written. I’d recommend reading it, and when you get to the end, in your imagination wrap it up the way you would have it.