Book Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson


Snow.11 February 1910.

Ye gods, thought the infant Ursula, in a preternatural burst of consciousness, as she was born for the ninety-ninth time. Again

She startled herself into a lusty scream.

Bravo! A divine voice spoke from somewhere unseen. Do you realize that this is the first birth you’ve survived all on your own? In every other life, you’ve nearly died of strangulation by your own umbilical cord.

Darkness–not the darkness of death, but of shock, the shock to which infants resort in order to protect their sanity–fell.

Some months later, on an Autumn day in 1911, the voice visited Ursula again. Ursula lay in her pram under falling leaves, marveling at a shiny silver hare that dangled from the pram’s awning.

I can’t get over it, the voice said exultantly, distracting Ursula from the hare. In every other life at this stage, you’ve begun to experience feelings of abandonment. But today, you are perfectly serene.

I was serene, until you came along. Who the hell are you? Ursula wondered.

I am your Author. Call me Kate. Or “My Lady,” if you prefer.

My Lady, my ass, Ursula protested. You must be responsible for reincarnating me over and over. I’ve lived dozens of lives, and you just can’t let me rest, can you, Author?

Ursula, soothed the Author. It was dozens of lives to you, but to the reading world, it is a mere 526 pages. And you’ve gotten such nice reviews.

Reviews! You’ve used my many reincarnations as a narrative gimmick for a novel?

Not “reincarnation” in the strictest sense. It’s more like the film Groundhog Day, in which the hero lives the same life over and over until he gets it right. But yes. And not only have your readers loved it, but thematically, I allowed Great Britain to re-do the entire twentieth century, and questioned modern gender roles by exploring how an individual woman’s life might play out if she made slightly different choices, or followed slightly divergent paths.

Ursula had no comment to this. She was beginning to pass out again under the hypnotically flashing silver hare.

Ursula, prodded the Author. Don’t you remember your own role in redefining history? You played your part so heroically! You personally saved the world in 1930!

Did I?

But wasn’t it only 1910? What might happen when 1930 rolled around again? What if Ursula failed to save the world this time?

Ha! Perhaps you did, and perhaps you didn’t, and perhaps you would again, or wouldn’t, the Author laughed. Those are the questions I got to play with in your story, as wielder of authorial power. What fun we could have, if only we had another 526 pages! But don’t worry, dear Ursula, we won’t revisit that storyline. This is only a thousand-word review.

I’m not worried. Ursula was too sleepy, warm and peaceful, under her pram blanket, to pursue such a serious line of conversation. You do make it sound like fun, though. Comical, even.

Comical indeed, said the Author. Wasn’t it hilarious that time you pushed Bridget down the stairs and broke her leg? Bridget didn’t know it, but by causing her to break her leg, you saved her from going to London and contracting a deadly flu strain. Your prescience saved the entire family, in fact, from dying of the flu. Your mother thought you were developing into a lunatic, of course. She had no inkling of the half-dozen previous lives in which Bridget went to London and brought home a fatal flu. Remember?

That doesn’t sound comical at all! Ursula tensed up in her pram, getting ready to cry. When would someone rescue her from this horrid Author? And no, I don’t remember. Why would anyone want to read such an awful story over and over and over? I don’t want to live that again! I want my mother!

Ah, said the Author sadly. Feelings of abandonment, after all. Well, you are just a baby. Would you like me to tell you about your reviews? Some of them were lovely. Yes, the novel was repetitive at times, but my prose is largely credited with transforming a potentially weary “gimmick”, as you call it, into a must-read. Look here. The New York Times: “the literary equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.” The Guardian: “There is no question that Atkinson is a superb writer and this Costa prize-winner is remarkable–joyful, moving, perceptive and quietly funny.”

What’s the Costa Prize?

A prestigious British literary award–a bit after your time. And how about this, from The Daily Kos: “On every level–the sharply sketched characters, humor both biting and gentle, an amazing eye for historical detail, the deft handling of a narrative that is anything but linear–this is a book that, like its main character, will live on.”

Oh, dear! Ursula began to wail in earnest now. That’s precisely what I’m afraid of!

Shhh, Ursula, crooned the Author. Don’t cry. I promise not to do it again. Dream of trees. Dream of an end to war and sexism.

As the weary infant drifted into slumber, a chilling thought came to the Author. She would put away her pen and let Ursula sleep. But no Author was powerful enough to prevent Ursula from living again–in fan fiction.

Under her pram blanket and a deepening drift of fall leaves, the sleeping infant wrinkled her tiny brow and twitched.