Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books, ISBN: 978-0316176491
Paperback, ©2013, 560 pages

On February 11, 2010, a young girl is born to a wealthy English family. Due to a snowstorm and blocked roads, the doctor cannot arrive in time, and the child dies.

On February 11, 2010, a young girl named Ursula is born to a wealthy English family. The doctor manages to arrive in the nick of time, and saves the child, who later drowns on an English beach before she’s ten.

On February 11, 2010, Ursula Todd is born to a wealthy English family. Despite a blizzard and blocked roads, the doctor arrives in time to save the child, who grows up to …

Over and over, Ursula Todd is born and dies. These two facts remain the same, while everything in between changes in a variety of ways. Pertinent elements of her life – siblings, location, people who come and go, even pets – reappear again and again, always in different ways and at different times and with different results. Somewhere in the cycle of her lives, little Ursula begins to recognize similarities to things she couldn’t possibly know, and to make mindful changes to her life in an attempt to steer her own course, never understanding exactly why, only knowing that she must. That there is a purpose to her life and she must find it at any cost.

Life After Life is a story about family, about home and hearth, but also about choices and their inevitable consequences. Clearly, the plot accepts as possible the concept of reincarnation, but in a very specific way. Ursula is always born to the same family in the same home on the same day. She always has the same blood siblings, same mother and father. The same employees work in the house doing the same jobs.

If that sounds remotely boring, you couldn’t be more wrong. Not despite the similarities, but because of them. I found myself wondering, each time Ursula’s life began anew, when and how Fred Smith would appear, or Millie, or Lucky the dog, and what picture the tapestry’s threads would reveal this time around. While this is Ursula’s story, she isn’t the only one living multiple times. All the characters are destined to experience intersecting lives. They are tied together in ways that keep them coming back to each other.

For me, Ursula’s experiences provoked contemplation on choices we make every day. What if I turned left instead of right? What if I stayed home instead of going out? On such small decisions, worlds sometimes turn, and Ursula learns this in a very up-close and personal way. Atkinson neatly avoids the cliché of repeating lives, giving an interesting twist to the What If concept. I was absolutely fascinated with the way the author layered Ursula’s multi-life “history,” and delighted in discovering these reappearances each time around. But the tale twists even more when Ursula begins to remember, intuitively, the events that preceded painful or difficult or deadly circumstances from her past lives, and to take action to prevent those same events from happening again. Does it work? Not always, and even when it does, the consequences are perhaps not what she expected, but believe me, that’s no spoiler.

The war—which takes on the nature of a character in its own right—plays an enormous role in the lives of everyone in the book. Atkinson’s done her homework, but does not burden the reader with interesting details that are nevertheless irrelevant to Ursula’s tale. Life After Life is so much more than a historical novel. It’s a tale that drew me in and wouldn’t let go. This is an excellent read that will linger long after the last page is turned.