Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

imgres-3Last night I watched the second half of Out of Sight, having not been able to stay up and watch it the other night.  It is a great film and testament again to Elmore Leonard’s ability to write cinematic stories.  It was all down hill for Jennifer Lopez after this film, she has never done anything since to match it, whereas George Clooney has gone from strength to strength.  The soundtrack also does it for me.  The original score by David Holmes is beautiful.  There is a scene where Foley and Karen meet in a hotel bar and talk about fate and what might have happened had they met under different circumstances.  Foley says:

It’s like seeing someone for the first time… like you could be passing on the street, and you look at each other and for a few seconds… there’s this kind of a recognition… like you both know something. The next moment, the person’s gone, and it’s too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it, because it was there, and you let it go, and you think to yourself, “What if I had stopped? If I had said something?”

I’m really interested in that notion of fate, I love a story where one decision, one action can effect the course of your life.  Ian McEwan does this sort of thing really well; what if Robbie had destroyed the letter to Cecilia in Atonement?  And then there is the age-old philosophical question; what if you could live your life over and over until you got it right and maybe undo your mistakes?

Kate Atkinson explores this question in Life After Life (at last, you’re all thinking, she’s got to the point!!).  Ursula Todd dies moments after being born on a snowy night in 1910.  She immediately tries her life again with a small change in circumstances and manages to survive a little longer.  The early chapters are short as Ursula negotiates her way through several failed attempts to stay alive.  Each death results in a small change, sometimes she learns and tweaks things she has influence over to stay alive for a little longer, sometimes circumstances around her are different that lead to her survival.  As she grows older the chapters are longer, she shows caution, but is sometimes also willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of changing things next time around.  It takes her some time to get past certain obstacles and find a route to adulthood but as she says “practice makes perfect.”  She negotiates her lives through different husbands and different countries, learning and changing small elements.

As a little girl she has fearful moments and worries about things in her day-to-day life, she has a funny feeling that she remembers things before they have happened.  Her mother sends her to a psychiatrist who talks to her about reincarnation but I was never really sure Ursula knew what was happening to her on a conscious level or whether her subconscious was acting as a guide to alter small things to get a different result.

That would have been quite a different life, perhaps a better one.  Of course, there was no way of knowing these things.

There is a moment where she feels exhausted, as though she were 100 years old, and she may well have lived for 100 years at that point.  As the book progresses it seems as though her conscious self understands more of what her subconscious is telling her and she begins to plan how things will end up and how she can change things for next time.  She comes to accept her fate.

Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the food and the bad equally.  Death is just one more thing to be embraced.

I’ve enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s writing for many years.  I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet back to back.  More recently I’ve been amused by the exploits of Jackson Brodie.  There is a charm and underlying wit to her writing which is repeated in Life After Life.  But what makes this book as exciting to read as her early work is the sensitive way she’s dealt with this grand theme of fate.  Although Atkinson works in the classic “what would you do if you could go back in time” act, which might be a turn off for some, she tackles this theme with everyday sometimes unremarkable events that could occur in all of our lives.  Using ideas all readers can relate to, renders the scenario more believable than had Ursula tried to change the course of history every time she was reborn.

Atkinson is also daring with the structure.  It is a brave writer who rewrites whole scenes with only small changes knowing that the writing and story is good enough to keep the reader’s attention.  I loved these rewritten scenes, watching out for the alternative actions, some of which were so subtle and nuanced it required attention.  It is the sort of book that leaves you thinking about life and the decisions you make.  I spent days wondering which of my own decisions, if different, might have changed the course of my history.  It was a joy to read and has been lovely to discuss with other readers and bloggers, it’s felt like being part of an important publishing event.  Life After Life has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  The shortlist is announced on Tuesday and I’m positive she will be on it.

Thanks to Alex in Leeds for sending me her review copy as part of her Literary Blog Hop

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5 thoughts on “Life After Life – Kate Atkinson”

  1. I’m such an Atkinson fan myself! I think she’s an amazing writer, so talented and yet, somehow undervalued. I am currently writing my disseration on One Good Turn although I still have to read the last of the Jackson Brodie series. I loved Life After Life for many reasons, but mainly because the way she challenges and re-articulates structure and themes, but also because of the way she gets you into the story.

    SPOILER:
    Didn’t you think the premise behind the shole story was amazing? I mean, there was a moment when although I was thoroughly enjoying it, I had no idea where it was leading me to. And then I saw it: WWII is the only way for Teddy and Nancy to have a happy ending. And, somehow, we readers almost cheer that they’re alive at the expense of so many lives! Thanks God, it’s only fiction and it’s save to play and have such feelings within its limits.
    END OF SPOILER

    1. Hi Elena. I’m impressed you are writing a dissertation on one of Atkinson’s books, unfortunately I haven’t read One Good Turn so can share my thoughts! Thanks for your spoiler alert. I must admit I got myself a little confused with the Teddy and Nancy story. I need to go back and reread a couple of chapters I think. It is a wonderful book that stays with you for some time!

  2. I was just reading a review of this over at kevinfromcanada’s blog. It sounds very SFnal. Is she the only person this happens to, or is it a function of the universe?

    The idea of embracing it all, death included, etc., sounds a bit self-helpy which worries me a tad. In real life of course, as best we know anyway, there are no do-overs.

    1. Hi Max, Sorry for the late response, been without broadband for a few days – nightmare! I’ve just read KfC’s review and your lengthy and philosophical discussion. As far as the reader is aware Ursula is the only one who experiences death and re-birth. I know we have no evidence that such things exist, but the Nietzschen philosophical question of “what would you do if you could live your life over” is central to the theme of Atkinson’s work. As she grows older, she realised her “gift” can help her family. It’s a great book on the surface but allows for some great in depth discussion.

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