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Life After Life: A Novel

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson I liked this book, but I was a little confused at the end, I wasn’t sure what the author was trying to tell me. I didn’t feel like it was over when I absorbed the last word. The story was about Ursula Todd. Unbeknownst to her, She was given the opportunity to keep trying on her life until she got it right. Her returns to life were never ending; the little changes often saved the life of one of the characters, but they didn’t go on to do anything major to effect history; the effort seemed to serve no real purpose. How long would these lives continue to repeat themselves, and to what end? Would Ursula ever feel more than déjà vu, when she re-experienced a moment in time?
The book begins in 1910. In Ursula’s first life, she dies in childbirth, In the next she is saved by the doctor’s fortuitous arrival and on and on, as the book moves forward. In each life, some problems she encountered in the previous one, are resolved. In each new life, she lives a bit longer and then dies in a variety of ways, drowning, suicide, in a bombing, falling, etc. Although some facts, and even some lines, repeat themselves, it is never boring.
The first 2/3rds of the 20th century are illuminated through the many lives of Ursula Todd, yet, although we witness the major events she lives through, several times, there is no major effect on any of the the world’s significant incidents, leading me to wonder, what was the purpose of her repeating her life so many times? She was not being reincarnated in the true sense of the word because she came back as the same person, in the same family, not as another individual in another life. There must have been a reason other than the opportunity to be reborn, without any memory of the former life, or put in another way, without the ability to die, once and for all.
The book never sinks into the morass of made for TV science fiction, but rather it allows the reader and the characters to re-explore their own lives and mistakes, often making changes for the better, but often unable to change it at all. It will make the reader wonder if it is a good thing to be able to come back and try and fix mistakes over and over or is it a true “life sentence”, a prison within which Ursula lives.
Ursula is a very unique individual, thinks on her feet, marches to her own drummer, but is also a good girl, very naïve and uninformed, very compassionate, and socially unaware. Her mother was often too judgmental, too sheltered herself, and very formal in her behavior. Her father is more soft and kind, gentler and more understanding. The siblings and other relatives and friends come in all stripes, promiscuous, prudish, obedient, malicious, independent, patriotic and free thinking. Ursula often has déjà vu, she is somehow carrying shadows of the memories of her past lives.
Ursula’s experiences encompass every kind of human encounter: family life, love life, social life, work life, civil life, childhood, adulthood, independence and dependence, marriage and single spinsterhood. In her many incarnations she has involvements with friends, families, men; they are all different: some loving, some brutal, some heartbreaking. In each life, of necessity, some things are repeated and it gets a bit confusing and sometimes tedious, but with each life we are offered a different view of her behavior, a different philosophy of life, a different world view, a different set of reactions to danger, horror, fear, control, madness, a different way of living. As each new life ends, we hear the mantra, “darkness falls”, and yet the sky always brightens again, renews itself and Ursula begins once more. With each new life, the story is elaborated, beginning anew in a slightly different time frame, sometimes in a different setting. Choices are made which play out differently but sometimes with the same result as the fates could not be altered.
Ursula's many lives span both wars and their disastrous consequences. In each new time period, more information is revealed about the setting of the world stage and each of the characters is more fully developed. Although it touches on the pain of the wars, the crippling effects, the monumental casualties and deaths, the anti-Semitism, the loss of all her loved ones, it doesn’t really delve into the details, just paints the atmosphere and then “darkness falls” again.
On the whole, this was a great book to listen to, the reader was perfect; she had wonderful material to work with. She spoke so clearly and so emotionally, using just the right inflection, wherever it was warranted, as she sang and read, even quoting poetry beautifully. Her voice had a lilting rhythm, her tone was resonant when she related the awful gravity of the experiences the characters endured. Her English accent was charming and expressive in all the appropriate places. The story was less science fiction than it was about second chances. The only problem I found, was that there was never a definite conclusion to the book and so it disappointed me. I felt there should have been another chapter.
As wonderful as the reader was in this audio, it would still have been a better book to read so that when the many lives became entwined one with the other, they could be unraveled, rechecked, simply by turning back some pages. Simply because of the sheer number of rebirths, I was often confused as to which life I was reading about; what years did it span, which characters had returned with Ursula, which scenes were being revisited? Even so, the author’s prose was magnificent. This author does not talk down to the reader. The quotes from literary masterpieces were beautiful and appropriately placed within the narrative and the story was very engaging.