Thursday, September 25, 2014

Life After Life Review

After reading "Kendall and Kylie Jenner's" book, I felt like I needed to scrub myself clean with a story of literary merit.  So, I selected one of 2014's most acclaimed reads, Kate Atkinson's superb Life After Life, as a palate-cleanser.  I lazed around, prone, and read the bulk of it in one day.  Physically, I feel a little slack.  Emotionally, I feel like I've been on a treadmill.

In fact, a treadmill is an apt metaphor for this book.  Our protagonist, Ursula Todd, is reborn with each death.  She is not placed in another body or sent to another location, but is returned to her same life, from the beginning, with only feelings of deja vu to mark her travels.  She is born in winter, 1910 — a numerically kind date for reader calculations — and lives through World Wars I and II.

The genre of the book is tricky to pin down.  It is a historical fiction and partly a family saga, but it also has a dash of the supernatural.  But, rather than moving the genre of the book out of the normal "Fiction" realm, Ursula's rebirths seem more like creative license being used — a device utilized by Atkinson to explore the nature of history.

I glanced at a review that argues that what Atkinson is suggesting is that the waste of World War II could have been prevented by the smallest alterations in events.  I think that this is a reasonable argument, but I'd counter that the book is saying that history is like a river.  If you could do it over, there'd be different water, but it'd still be the same damn river.

Does this sound overly futile?  This is a futile book.  It's also, frequently, overwhelmingly bleak.  At times, nightmarish.  Why read it, then?  Simply, the book is very well written and has a sense of magnitude and importance about it.

It starts out on a small scale.  The first half of the book is largely devoted to Ursula's childhoods.   Her father, Hugh, is a banker of some success, and he and his wife, Sylvie, are able to afford a sizable country house and grounds, named Fox Corner, early into their marriage.  They have a mess of children, of which Ursula is the third born.  Their world is populated with well-drawn characters and events.

The scenes of their ordinary lives in the early 20th century are well done, and expertly convey a sense of time and place.  The story would be an above-average example of historical fiction except for Ursula's weird quirk. The first few times she dies are bewildering for the reader.  The story is plodding along and then — bam — a tide rises too quickly.  A roof is coated in slippery ice.  The Spanish influenza comes knocking.  There is little to no explanation for Ursula's rebirths; the reader is expected to just go with it.

Then, World War II commences, the magnitude of the story grows, and the reader starts to see a larger message at play. We see Ursula take on a myriad of roles in the war as she shuffles through lives, frequently in the center of the war action. The plot heightens further when Ursula's unrelenting sense of deja vu leads her to study languages and move to Germany as a young adult.  With each life, she moves further towards a sense of purpose.

The conclusion arrives with a wallop, and is, at the same time, definitive and elusive.  I closed the book feeling accomplished, wishing I could immediately discuss what I'd just read with someone.  Life After Life is a story with a lot of meat on its bones.

Final Verdict: 5 North Stars


  1. First off, why would you subject yourself to reading such trash (K & K Jenner's book)? Are you a masochist? I'm not judging you. Lol. Sometimes, my curiosity gets the better of me, too.

    Anyway, I've had this book in my pile but have yet to find the right mood (and mind) for it.

    Great review!


    I'm jealous of your words. Also, please skip my blog for today, okay? Don't bother visiting. Not because I want you there but because. My God, woman. This is what you read to clean your palate?!

    1. Curiosity did get the better of me! Also, I thought it would make for a fun review.

      You really do have to be in the right mind for this book. Mine was determined. I'm not sure what other moods would work.

      Thank you so much! That's awesome to hear!

      Now I have to visit your blog. I'm sure you have nothing to hide! I followed up Life After Life with Eat, Brains, Love, so it's not like I have discriminatory taste. :D