Favorite Books of the 2010s: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

This is a series of reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019.


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)

Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910 and dies before she can draw her first breath; then she is born again, on that same night, and lives; and again; and again.

The first thing to say about this book is that Kate Atkinson’s writing is amazing. I loved the style of it, told from inside Ursula’s head but with other characters often interjecting their thoughts on what’s happening as dialogue. After a while, I began to wonder if Ursula was jumbling up her many lives together in her mind. It would be worth rereading this book just to pay attention to that.

But this book packs an emotional wallop, and that may keep me from returning to it. I really grew to like Ursula and to identify with her, so it was difficult dying with her again and again, especially as some of her deaths are extremely brutal. The pivotal point of many of Ursula’s lives is World War II, and those sections of the book that describe her war experiences — particularly the section when she is in Germany and the long one where she survives the Blitz — are absolutely horrific in their details. They really make you feel what living through that terrible war must have been like.

This novel raised a lot of existential questions for me. Ursula doesn’t truly remember her past lives, but she does remember details, enough to try to change events in subsequent lives. Yet every time she dies, she returns to zero and must do it all over again. I have to start wondering what the point of it all is. I mean, why try to kill Hitler if you know that when you die, you’re just going to have to do it again? There doesn’t seem to come a point when Ursula gets it right, so to speak, and gets to escape the endless imprisonment of reincarnation to enlightenment. The thought of having to relive the same events over and over, avoid the same mistakes, just makes me tired. The novel never addressed the question of how to get out, and I wish it had, at least peripherally.

Parenthetically, Ursula is also a reader, and I have to wonder if she remembers the books she read from life to life. Must make reading very boring after a while. Unless the books change too?

In subject matter, this novel reminded me a lot of Replay by Ken Grimwood. It would be interesting to read the two back to back and contrast how the two authors address the reincarnation dilemma.

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