Life After Life by Kate Atkinson


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Published: April, 2013 (Reagan Arthur Books)

Format: Kindle E-Book — I might also order a hardcover copy from Random House, Canada — the one with the pretty fox on the cover. 🙂

Recommended By: Jennifer at The Relentless Reader and Lucy at Therapy Through Tolstoy

I Categorized It As: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, and Science Fiction/Fantasy.

My Rating: 5/5

With the articulate wit and charm that illuminated Case Histories, Kate Atkinson has crafted a clever, engrossing novel that playfully explores our ideas about reincarnation, time, and experience.

Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in England, in 1910, the third child of an affluent banker. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and she dies only moments after she comes into the world. Then she is reborn into the same life, and due to a slight shift in circumstances, her life is saved. But tragedy still lies ahead. Each time she is reborn, traces of previous incarnations are left behind. A nagging sense of déjà vu. Fleeting images and lingering emotions. Unsettling anxieties and premonitions. Each time, these traces seem a bit stronger.

While reading this novel, an image kept emerging in my mind, but I didn’t have a word for it. The author eventually supplied the word: palimpsest — (yes, I had to look it up) — a manuscript of papyrus or parchment that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.

These traces of previous incarnations, often emerging as fears and premonitions, sometimes help Ursula avert disaster. Eventually, she is able to recall enough to form a plan — one that requires prognostication as well as courage and foresight — a scheme that may alter the course of history.

I fell ridiculously in love with this novel as I was reading it — it’s giving George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords a run for its money as my Favorite Literary Obsession of the Year. It’s one of those novels I found engrossing and nourishing to my imagination. 🙂

Strong Points:

    • Atkinson’s gorgeous writing and phenomenal skill with language.
    • The characters in this novel, especially Ursula, are well drawn and absorbing.
    • The history in this novel is exceptionally rich. It takes us through the first world war and the influenza epidemic that followed, the rise of Nazi Germany, and World War II and its aftermath.
    • The author is masterful at evoking a sense of time and place. I became wholly absorbed in rural England in the early 20th century, London in the Blitzkrieg, Germany during the rise of the the Third Reich, and Germany at the time of her fall, as citizens were being mercilessly molested and killed by advancing, vengeful Russian troops. These settings are vivid, and the scenes are beautifully written, illuminating both the senseless suffering and tragedy and daily acts of courage and fortitude.
    • I love the way the author plays with the concept of reincarnation and the idea of time somehow being both linear and cyclical, like an ouroboros. (The creature has both a head and tail, yet it is a circle.)
      Similarly, in Life After Life, there is a sense of successive lives moving forward and progressing toward an ultimate goal. Yet there is a cyclical quality to Ursula’s lives, and the novel ends on that note. There is definitely a paradoxical quality to this book that has kept me thinking.
    • Another paradox: this novel was shaped around sweeping historical events and the protagonist’s desire to alter the course of history. Yet there is a strong sense of the small events and simple things, persisting through various incarnations, that comprise our lives. That resonated with me.
    • I love the wealth of other themes explored, including grief, loss, motherhood, and loneliness. This novel also explores the complex web of family relationships and the way experiences — even a single event — can reshape a person. We see different versions of Ursula in various incarnations. Though the person she is, at her core, remains the same, based on pivotal experiences, she is adventurous, dutiful and courageous, maternal, or fragile and full of shame.
    • The ending was a bit puzzling, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. This thoroughly distracted me from the mundane events of my day, which is all to the good.

Memorable Quotes:

Adelaide, her mother, said she would have preferred it if Izzie had been kidnapped by white slave traders rather than throwing herself into the arms of debauchery with such enthusiasm. (p. 23)

“Jewish,” Sylvie said in the same voice she would use for “Catholic”— intrigued yet unsettled by such exoticism. (p. 48)

Sylvie was pleasantly surprised by her elder daughter’s capacity for monotony. It would stand her in good stead for her life to come. (p. 55)

Dr. Fellowes was obstinately faithful to his wife but his thoughts roamed far and wide. (p. 63)

And sometimes , too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur— if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances. (p. 121)

Her memories seemed like a cascade of echoes. (p. 153)

Sylvie’s knowledge, like Izzie’s, was random yet far-ranging, “the sign that one has acquired one’s learning from novels, rather than an education,” according to Sylvie. (p. 168)

Sylvie’s children only really came into focus for her when in isolation. Together they were an unwieldy flock, singly they had character. (p. 192)

Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve. (p. 208)

(About Unbearable Grief) “It’s as if,” he said to Ursula, “you walk into a room and your life ends but you keep on living.” (p. 239)

Home was an idea, and like Arcadia it was lost in the past. (p. 309)

Izzie said, “you’re at an age when a girl is simply consumed by the sublime.” Ursula wasn’t sure what she meant … but she thought she understood a little. There was a strangeness in the shimmering air, a sense of imminence that made Ursula’s chest feel full, as if her heart was growing. It was a kind of high holiness— she could think of no other way of describing it. Perhaps it was the future, she thought, coming nearer all the time. (pp. 323-324)

a restless, empty gaiety that needed continual feeding. (p. 346)

(About Motherhood) She was the molten core at the center of Ursula’s heart, she was the better part of everything she did or thought. Ursula would be willing to walk on knives for the rest of her life if it would protect Frieda. Burn in the flames of hell to save her. Drown in the deepest of waters if it would buoy her up. (She had explored many extreme scenarios. Best to be prepared.) She had had no idea …  that maternal love could be so gut-achingly, painfully physical. (pp. 347-348)

The great icy crags and the rushing waterfalls, the endless pine trees— nature and myth fused to form the Germanic sublimated soul. German Romanticism, it seemed to Ursula, was writ large and mystical, the English Lakes seemed tame by comparison. And the English soul, if it resided anywhere, was surely in some unheroic back garden— a patch of lawn, a bed of roses, a row of runner beans. (p. 350).

Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future. Only a true narcissist could do that. (p. 351)

(On Nazi Germany) … what had been achieved— the country was working again— full employment, food, health, self-respect. New jobs, new roads, new factories, new hope— how else could they achieve this, he said? But it came with an ecstatic faux-religion and a wrathful false messiah . “Everything comes with a price,” Jürgen said. Perhaps not as high as this one. (How had they done it? Ursula often wondered. Fear and stagecraft mostly.) (p. 352)

“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” Klara said. “If we all had it there would be no history to write about.” (p. 354)

How very British of Sylvie to reduce the Third Reich to a “fuss.” (p. 366)

(On Hitler and the Fall of Germany) He had strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage. To what avail? A kind of Armageddon. The death of Europe. It was life itself, wasn’t it, she corrected herself, that Shakespeare had fretting and strutting. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. They were all walking shadows in Berlin. Life had mattered so much once and now it was the cheapest thing on offer.  (p. 377)

… we must bear witness .” What did that mean? Ursula wondered. “It means ,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.” (p. 390)

(About Unbearable Grief) That was over now, she thought, finishing her whisky. Now there was just nothing. A vast , featureless landscape of nothing, as far as the horizon of her mind. Despair behind, and Death before. (p. 457)

(On the 1960s) Young people these days had so much enthusiasm for themselves, as if they had invented the future. This was the generation the war had been fought for and now they bandied the word “peace” around glibly as though it were an advertising slogan. They had not experienced a war … They had been handed, in Churchill’s phrase, the title deeds of freedom. What they did with them was their affair now, she supposed. (p. 475)

He was unsure of the details of the doings behind the door, only too grateful that he was not expected to be familiar with the mechanics of childbirth. Sylvie’s screams suggested torture if not outright butchery . Women were extraordinarily brave , Hugh thought. He smoked a series of cigarettes to stave off any unmanly squeamishness. (p. 481)

The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside become the outside. Time was out of joint, that was for certain. (p. 505)


8 responses to “Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

  1. I’m so glad that you liked this one! Going in I wasn’t sure if it would be a book for me but oh my word it was 🙂

  2. Thank you for the mention, Steph! This must be my favourite review of the novel, and you’ve got me thinking about it all over again 🙂 I particularly love the last quote on unbearable grief you’ve mentioned – writing like this really encourages me to read more by the author.

    I also like your reference to the ouroboros, that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s a fascinating book, and clearly had so much research and thought put into it. If I remember one thing from the novel it would be the image of Ursula’s comfortable family life in the English countryside (before war hits). To me that’s a really warm, comforting image that recalls a lot of my own memories.

    Thanks again for such a great review!

    • Thanks for this lovely, thoughtful comment. The quotes on unbearable grief really resonated with me. And I loved the scenes of comfortable family life in the English countryside too. 🙂

    • The image of ouroboros was mentioned once in the book, though the author didn’t use the word. While visiting the therapist who talks about reincarnation (I’ve already forgotten his name), Ursula sketches the image. I found it thought provoking.

  3. I so so so wanted to love this one but I just didn’t. I finished it last week and still haven’t been able to mentally put together my thoughts for a decent post. I do agree that Atkinson’s writing is gorgeous and rich but in the end it wasn’t enough to carry me through without becoming frustrated by the storyline. I did love this history as well–I didn’t realize how long the London Bombings went on! Palimpsest is a great word, huh? It’s one of the few that I looked up while reading as well.

    • I’m sorry you didn’t like this book nearly as much as I did, but I can see where you’re coming from. 🙂 I tend to me drawn to odd, time bendy storylines. If that weren’t the case, I can imagine that the structure of this story might have been frustrating.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. I have been meaning to read this since I’ve seen so many good reviews! Let’s hope I purchase it soon 🙂

  5. Pingback: Brink of War: The Rise of the Reich as Germany Goes Russian – /

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