A couple of my friends say that Kate Atkinson is their favourite contemporary author. I have read, and enjoyed, Case Histories but not been particularly motivated to read any of her others. However, Life After Life received so many good reviews I thought I’d get it out from the library, and that the fact that I had to endure a long waiting list before I got my hands on it upped my anticipation.
I had learned of the basic premise before I started, a woman lives her life over and over showing the results of different twists of fate in each case, but I didn’t know anything about the setting, time, characters etc. The main character is Ursula Todd who, after some false starts, is born into an upper-middle class English family in 1910. This date is important, as it means Ursula’s (eventual) life will be played out against the backdrop of the Great War, social change in the 1920s and 30s, the Second World War and the new post-war world. It asks interesting questions about the nature of fate and coincidence, and there are frequent references to Keats and Nietzsche, who have obviously influenced Atkinson is writing this book.
I found the concept inventive and intriguing and the writing good, but for me it just wasn’t an enjoyable read. For a start it is rather repetitive, like the birth scene repeated several times throughout the novel. And sometimes when a new life story is picked up at a later date you are sometimes left confused or unsure of what has happened to lead Ursula to this point, this time round. I quite liked Ursula’s family, particularly the outrageous aunt Izzie and the steadfast older sister Pamela, but I didn’t much like Ursula herself who is rather hesitant, indecisive and, to be frank, weak. Crucially, it is a depressing book. The number of deaths, not just of Ursula but of others too, and the ways in which people die, is a lot to take. There is just not enough light to go with the dark, it is laid on far too thickly. Finally, my last grumble (and it’s not much of a spoiler because it happens in the first chapter) is the attempt to kill Hitler which is silly and cliched and knocks a further ‘half star’ off my rating.
Up next, The Second World War by Anthony Beevor