What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
‘Life After Life’ is not the usual type of historical novel that I review. This is a fascinating story which explores the concept of life and time. What would happen if we lived the same life over and over again? Would it always be the same or would things change? Would we be able to guide our destiny to avoid the bad things which happen in life or to seek to achieve a goal which appears to be out of reach? Ms Atkinson uses the life/lives of Ursula to explore this theme.
Ursula is born one snowy day in 1910. She dies without taking her first breath but then is born again in the same situation with one minor difference which allows her to live. The novel continues to follow Ursula as she is born and dies, again and again. Each time her life is changed in some small way which leads to much larger changes as the years go by. Edward Lorenz asked, ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ In this novel Ursula finds that her choices, as well as the decisions which people make all around her, do indeed lead to great changes – lives saved or lost, war or a chance for peace, all made possible through something as small as the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings.
Knowing, in part, what is going to happen to Ursula leaves you rooting for her, hoping that she will make a certain choice, speak to a certain person, avoid a certain action. In some of her incarnations you find yourself hoping that she survives and is happy, in others you hope that her death comes more quickly and she can start a new and better life. It is a strange novel in this sense, yet compulsive reading.
The reason I am recommending this book as historical fiction is the period in which it is set. Ursula lives during the turbulent years of both World Wars, and Ms Atkinson conveys these times in incredible detail. Her fictional accounts of the London blitz are some of the best I have read – both harrowing and inspiring. In another life Ursula lives in Germany during the Second World War. The descriptions of the changes from pre-war euphoria through nationalism to war and, finally, despair in Berlin during the last days of the Reich bear testimony to the depth of research which the author has carried out.
‘Life After Life’ is a unique novel in its structure. It is also a novel rich in historical detail and, in addition, a compelling portrait of Ursula and her family. Ms Atkinson’s writing cuts to the heart of human hopes and dreams, ambitions, loves and losses; the reader comes to love or hate the characters who are well drawn and believable, the kind of people you could meet almost anywhere.
The author writes with great skill, producing a novel which is thought provoking, moving and at times uncomfortable. It is the sort of book which leaves the reader reflecting on life, destiny and fate. What might be the consequences of our actions? Can we shape the future by a single word or deed or is it all pre-ordained? This is not a light read, but if you are looking for something entertaining and educational which leaves you asking questions and wanting more then I heartily recommend that you read ‘Life After Life’.
This novel won the 2013 COSTA Novel Award, and deservedly so.
‘Life After Life’ can be found on Amazon
Kate Atkinson’s website can be found here
More of my Recommended Reads can be found here.