Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life Do you ever look back on your life and wish you had done something differently? Do you sometimes regret the decisions you’ve made and wonder what would have happened if you’d chosen another path through life? I’m sure we would all answer ‘yes’ to those questions, but unfortunately most of us only have one chance to get things right. But Ursula Todd is not like the rest of us. If things don’t work out the first time, she does have the chance to go back and try again…and again…and again.

Ursula is born one snowy night in February 1910 with the umbilical cord around her neck. Darkness falls and she dies before the doctor has time to arrive. We turn the page and it’s that same night in February 1910 again. This time the doctor is present and she survives, but this is only the beginning of Ursula’s journey through life. Every time she reaches a turning point, she must be sure to make the right decision – otherwise darkness will soon fall once more and Ursula must return to the night of her birth in 1910 and have another attempt.

As we follow Ursula again and again through some of the major events of the twentieth century – including both the First and Second World Wars (there are some very atmospheric scenes set in London during the Blitz) – she slowly grows in wisdom and learns from her previous mistakes, even without being fully aware of what is happening to her or why. Gradually she develops a sort of intuition or déjà vu that allows her to draw on her past experiences, and this is used to particularly good effect in an early sequence of chapters in which she has several attempts at preventing the maid, Bridget, from going to London and catching Spanish flu.

Apart from Ursula herself, the characters who are almost always there throughout every version of the story are the members of the Todd family – Ursula’s brothers Maurice, Teddy and Jimmy, sister Pamela and parents Hugh and Sylvie – and the servants, Mrs Glover and Bridget. Izzie, Ursula’s wild and irresponsible aunt, also plays a significant role in many of the storylines. Other characters come and go; people who are an important part of Ursula’s life in one existence barely appear at all in another and it’s fascinating to see how something as simple as a chance encounter in the street (and the way she reacts to it) could completely alter the course of her future. Sometimes Ursula is unable to change the outcome of a particular event no matter what choices she makes; on other occasions even a small action has huge consequences.

Life After Life is a very clever, complex novel; I was so impressed by it! With such an unusual and complicated plot it could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t; I thought everything worked perfectly and although I found it confusing at first, after the first few chapters I knew I was going to love the book. It’s actually much less repetitive than you might think and fortunately we don’t have to go right through the entire story from the beginning each time Ursula is reborn! I sometimes felt a bit distanced from Ursula, maybe because in each of her lives she makes different choices, has different ambitions and motives, so is not exactly the same person she was in a previous existence – but that didn’t stop me liking her and hoping things would work out better for her the next time darkness fell and she went back to that snowy February night yet again.

This is the first Kate Atkinson book I’ve read and having enjoyed it so much I will be looking out for her other books now. I understand that her earlier novels are very different to this one but I would still like to read them and would welcome any recommendations.

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36 thoughts on “Life After Life by Kate Atkinson”

  1. I loved it too! Kate Atkinson is a great writer and you really highlight it when saying it could have been a disaster but it wasn’t. I highly recommend you the Jackson Brodie series. I read them, love them and I’m currently doing research about them. They’re much more psycholical/thrillery and make some easy yet high-quality reading.

    1. Thanks, Elena – I’ll take your advice and try the Jackson Brodie series. Do I need to start with the first one or can they be read in any order?

      1. I read them #3, #2, #1, #2 and now I’ll be reading #4, but I highly recommend you reading them in order, there are some linear elements in the plots worth considering! And to be sincere, I’m a little bit confused right now…

  2. I’ve been wondering about reading this book, but you have convinced me. I don’t know why I needed convincing since I adore Groundhog Day as well as Kate Atkinson’s writing. I highly recommend When Will There Be Good News? Don’t love the title, but the writing is lyrical and beautiful, and the mystery is compelling.

  3. I could highly recommend the Jackson Brodie books. The second one – One Good Turn – although essential a detective story, is also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I’ve been waiting for another novel from Kate Atkinson, hoping for another Jackson Brodie, and was disappointed when I heard that it wasn’t – but having read your review I’m going to give it a go.

  4. I’m so glad you liked this. I’ve loved all of Atkinson’s books, and I’ve been wishing for her to get the acclaim and attention she deserves. I think she’s a wonderful writer. Her other books have an off-kilter sense of humor that only shows through a few times here, and I love them.

  5. I am slowly inching forward in the reserve line at the library, but I think it will still be several weeks before my turn comes. I’ve only skimmed reviews, including yours, but the little I’ve read sounds so intriguing.

  6. I loved it too! So original. And will also recommend the Jackson Brodie series. Very different but equally well written and absorbing.

  7. Yes, a great book! I really loved and admired it, too. I like the Jackson Brodie series a whole lot – they have the same quality of being a bit cyclical and of everything and everyone being connected and affecting each other’s lives in unexpected ways.

  8. Great review, you have captured the book without giving anything away, which is quite difficult. I read this book 3 months ago and it’s still with me now. It is so cleverly written and beautifully constructed that it will amaze you if you read other work as although they are the same they are just so different. Personally I did not like Emotionally Weird however her Jackson Brodie novels are fantastic.

    1. Yes, this was a difficult review to write without spoiling too much of the plot. I’ll leave Emotionally Weird for now and try the Jackson Brodie novels next.

  9. I’ve only read your summary of thoughts this time, because I’m going to start it very soon, but I’m glad of another good review because I’m unsure about whether I’ll like it. Having read a couple of books with similar themes (though with a different idea included) I’ve thought it might be repetitive, but it seems there is enough difference here. The idea of reliving is just fascinating, a dream.

    1. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it, bearing in mind you’ve read some other books that are similar. I’ve never read anything on this theme so it was something completely different for me!

  10. As everyone else has already said, this sounds like a fascinating little book – I’ve read several reviews so far and I obviously need to get myself in gear and actually read it. I haven’t read much by Atkinson, but I got “Not the End of the World” for Christmas several years ago and remember thinking it was extremely clever. That’s a linked series of short stories, where often you find that the main protagonist in one is somehow related to the action of another.

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