Kate Atkinson has had a long and distinguished career but I confess this is the first book of hers I’ve read, and it was suggested by a member of my book club. I had little or no expectation going into this book, but Life after Life took me for a loop, doing some utterly ambitious things I’ve never seen attempted before. The premise is that Ursula Todd gets to restart her life every time she dies, going back to the birth and starting over. The degree of ingenuity the author brings to these restarts, keeping certain details and subtly changing others, was a magnificent performance of writerly skill. I was impressed. And Ursula Todd was, in places, an interesting character. However I don’t know that any writerly skill can overcome the inherent challenge—which is how it’s nearly impossible to care about the fate of a character who keeps dying. You tend to develop a so-what attitude whenever there’s anything at stake. So what if it goes bad and she dies—again.
By far the longest and strongest section of the book was set during the Blitz of London, which Ms. Atkinson brings to life more vividly than almost any other account I’ve read. It even rivals Connie Willis, who spends thousands of pages there. But it’s my own humble opinion that the book should have climaxed there. It felt like the climax. But then there was a whole other hundred pages in which Ursula’s next life takes her to Germany to knock off Hitler, which I can tell you without it being a spoiler because it’s the prologue to the book. To me that section just didn’t ring nearly as true or sound, in part because the rest of the book is so thoroughly English, and Ursula herself is so very English. The whole alternate German life seemed out of character for both her and the novel.
I have a few other quibbles, mainly with the character of Ursula’s mother, who changes from life to life. She’s a sympathetic character at the opening and then modulates into one you have to loathe, which is all fine if you know why. But the book only hints at things—such as a possible affair we hear of briefly and never again—and doesn’t explore them. It became frustrating to me. And then my bigger quibble is the same one other reviewers have had, which is that the book is long and has a virtuoso gloss, but it doesn’t add up to a moving experience. There’s the strong sense of an empty vessel. Perhaps the same so-what attitude that we develop for Ursula’s fate ends up applying to the novel as a whole—we don’t have enough to care about.
That said, I’m curious about her detective novels and I’m planning to read the first of her Jackson Brodie series. Kate Atkinson certainly has a big toolbox of writerly craft!