This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a complicated story that begins with both the birth and death of Ursula Todd and moves in different directions as Ursula’s life is saved or rewritten, leaving the reader to wonder whether we are seeing how fate could have taken different turns or if Ursula herself is somehow able to rewind tragedies and try to get them right the next time.
Set in England and beginning in 1910, this story spans both World Wars, but focuses on the period during World War II and the heavy toll it took on Europe. Ursula’s different life paths place her at the center of the German bombings in London for much of the book. In a separate turn of life, she spends time in Germany and twice almost manages to rewrite Adolf Hitler’s fate.
I spent some time reading reviews of Life After Life and, instead of finding all four- and five-star reviews, I found a considerable number of reviews that complained about how complicated and hard to follow this story is. I think there is some truth in these comments and the only way to thoroughly enjoy Life After Life is to study it and take notes – it is worth this effort! I read Life After Life on my Kindle and, although I like paging back and forth with a real book, the “Search” feature made it easy to check on the many details. As I did all this, I started to see Ursula’s lives as a kind of river, with tributaries taking it in different directions.
Here is the diagram I drew to help me!
There are many things I like about Atkinson’s writing style in Life After Life. She makes many references to animals, particularly foxes, rabbits, dogs and cats, and ties both their influence and fates into the characters. For example, a seemingly unimportant dog, later named Lucky, changes Ursula’s fate and has a strong positive influence on both Ursula and her brother Teddy. I like the wholeness of this idea, humans sharing the world with nature and other creatures.
I also like the way Atkinson repeats and ties together phrases and presents them in different scenarios. The phrase, “Practice makes perfect” is particularly meaningful as Ursula’s lives rewind and play back with different twists. Sylvie’s frequent comment, “Needs must” is repeated by her daughters at important times and is an example of their mother’s influence, despite their emotional distance from her. In addition, I think the author’s use of dialogue is great, especially when she ends chapters with a short comment. What else is there for Izzie to say, for example, when Ursula shows up at her door twice with bad news? “You’d better come in then.” That says it all.
Atkinson uses small details that change as this story moves forward and backwards. These details appear most notably in the scenes with Teddy, Bridget and the Spanish flu. Ursula’s strong desire to save them leads to a variety of outcomes as do her efforts to save Nancy from an awful fate. Many iterations of these scenes lead to different outcomes, some ironic, some heartbreaking and I think Atkinson touches on the “What if?” way of thinking that we all experience in our lives.
I think the repetition of Ursula’s apartment being bombed is the strongest part of the story and Atkinson is able to describe these experiences in a way that shows what it must have been like for people living in London during the Blitz. She tells the story through an omniscient point of view and her use of grim humor shows how Ursula is able to distance herself from this destruction and death.
I always have favorite characters and this time it’s Hugh. He loves Ursula, makes his point with Sylvie and makes you wish to know someone like him. Evil characters such as Maurice are easy to hate and there are plenty of in-between characters with complicated traits that make you feel conflicted.
There’s a lot more to Life After Life, most notably Hitler’s treatment of Jews and the ultimate “What if?” question: Could the Holocaust have been prevented if Hitler had been killed before he became evil?
Ursula asks Ralph, “Don’t you wonder sometimes, if just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.”
And Ralph’s answer – “But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby?” So in the end, there is still this dissatisfying answer about fate and stopping evil.
An open ending leaves many questions to this book. But friendship and love and happiness find a way to develop in even the most terrible scenarios of this story and I think this is the author’s message of hope.
Atkinson’s companion book to Life After Life is A God in Ruins. Read my review here.
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