Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson
Life After Life

I have read Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum but that didn't really grab me so I thought I’d try another book of hers as her writing gets such good reviews. I was also really interested in this book as it is about the war and it seems to have some clever alternative ideas with the structure of its narrative.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

I have read Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum but that didn’t really grab me so I thought I’d try another book of hers as her writing gets such good reviews. I was also really interested in this book as it is about the war and it seems to have some clever alternative ideas with the structure of its narrative.

I am thinking this book could be a little like The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, which I love and have read several times, as it is similarly about the Second World War and has different chapters from different times. However, sigh, Atkinson’s book jumps about in time a bit too much for me, with one chapter in 1910 then another chapter in 1947 then another chapter in 1918. I originally kept going back in the book in an attempt to try and follow it in chronological order, but it’s just too slow to do that. I guess I have to trust that everything will be tied together beautifully at the finish and that Atkinson answers all the questions and has cleared up all the loose ends. Jumping about in time is a clever idea, but I am finding it frustrating sometimes going over and over the same bits.

I am also getting a bit confused with all the lives Ursula has, she keeps dying but then comes back to life again and then has the chance to alter the path of events to prevent her dying or to prevent someone else dying, although she doesn’t seem to yet fully understand this ‘gift’ and she doesn’t deliberately determine to alter events, she just gets a strong foreboding that something bad is going to happen and that her intervention can help. This is another really clever idea of Atkinson’s and I am kind of fascinated by it, but I’m also feeling a bit cheated that we don’t see the conclusion of a story which I’ve been caught up in, and most seem to be tragic stories such as the rape and abortion or the abusive husband, and then part of me is relieved when she dies and is then out of that misery, but the other side of me feels a bit disappointed that I’ve not seen her overcome her misery and achieve her happy ending, I feel like I’ve invested all that time following her story and sympathising with her and it’s all wasted as we just start all over again.

I’m intrigued to see if Ursula does begin to learn how to use this ‘power’ that she’s got of altering events, it appears she could do so as at the very start of the book she kills Hitler, so I wonder what other events she deliberately alters. 

I have to admit I’m finding it confusing with characters dying, such as her siblings or the maid, and then them being alive in the next chapter. However, I do like the consistency that the characters in Ursula’s life are present in each of her lives, sometimes just as passing acquaintances rather than flatmates or friends but they are often there, even animals, and most die in the same way in each of her lives, such as her dad with a heart attack and her mother overdosing, apart from those she has a foreboding about and can prevent, such as Bridget with the Spanish flu, and Nancy being abducted as a child. 

I am loving that Ursula’s mum, Sylvie, is a big reader and frequently quotes Jane Austen and other authors! 

The Blitz is extremely well written, I felt like I was really there with all the shock and horror and fear and destruction. And I was interested in the books about war which Atkinson lists at the back of the book that she had used for reference, and I have jotted a few down and am tempted to read them myself.

I found it quite disturbing when Ursula was at Hitler’s mountain retreat with him and Eva, it sounds strange but somehow to have him there in the book knowing what he has done and to have ‘our’ Ursula talking and interacting with him made me feel quite uncomfortable. And then I felt Ursula’s terror when she realises she can’t escape Germany with the Russians approaching. It was also interesting to see the German side of things and the German people’s hero-worship of Hitler, as he’d brought them jobs and wealth and taken them out of hardship and made them feel like a team and proud of their country. 

I’m thinking I may have found the book easier to follow if it had just had the one clever theme, either moving back and forwards in time or Ursula beginning life again, it’s perhaps just me getting easily confused but I found it very disjointed and chaotic both jumping about between the decades and her beginning life again on a different course, I think I’d probably prefer it if the book had at least stuck to one time period.

The ending puzzled me and I felt I was left with a few unanswered questions. Did Ursula understand her ‘power’ in the end with staying at the psychiatric unit, or are we supposed to think this coming back to life thing was all imagined by her? Why did Teddy mouth ‘thank you’ to her when he met her and Nancy in the pub after he’d not died in the plane crash but been in a prison of war camp for two years instead, although he had been presumed dead by his family, was this because he knew she had altered things to prevent him dying? And I presume her killing of Hitler wasn’t successful, as the war obviously still happened.

I did enjoy many aspects of this book and it has stayed in my mind and I would recommend it to others as it has so many clever themes and the experience of the war is extremely well written, but I didn’t find it particularly relaxing to read (although that probably wasn’t Atkinson’s intention anyway!). I am tempted to read more of Atkinson’s books as she clearly is such a remarkable writer, and I see she has a detective series (featuring her detective, Jackson Brodie) so perhaps I’ll try the first book in that series, Case Histories. And I was tempted to read several of the books which Atkinson had used as reference in writing her book, although several seem currently unavailable or difficult to find when I search for them, but she lists Lambeth at War by Stanley Rothwell, Front Line 1940-41: The Official Story of the Civil Defence of Britain, The Blitz: Westminster at War by William Sansom, and Post D: Some Experiences of an Air Raid Warden by John Strachey. I was also reminded of Sarah Waters’ book The Night Watch and it’s been a while since I’ve read that so I’m tempted to pick that up again, and I’m also tempted to re-read one of my favourite books that I’ve read time and again, Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’, and (stepping away from the war!) I did love Ursula’s mother’s references to Jane Austen’s books so I’m always happy to re-read those, Pride and Prejudice being one of my favourites.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

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