Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

Kate Atkinson
Life After Life
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Reagan Arthur Books / Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-316-17648-4
Publication Date: 04-02-2013
532 Pages; $27.99
Date Reviewed: 05-27-2013

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy  Science Fiction

Surely the job of the novel is to now and again attempt to capture the whole of a life, from birth to death. It's an ambitious task, but one ideally suited for the novel. Here the writer can cut carefully from one part to the next, leave out the boring and unimportant bits while emphasizing those moments that change our lives and let us change the lives of those around us.

Kate Atkinson is no stranger to this kind of work. Her first novel, 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' begins with the conception of the main character. Her latest novel, 'Life After Life,' is even more ambitious. While Atkinson waits until birth to introduce us to Ursula, within a few pages Ursula dies — and is subsequently reborn, at the same time and in the same place to begin a new and slightly divergent life. 'Life After Life' captures the whole of one life by offering Ursula many lives, iterations and echoes.

To be clear, what's happening in 'Life After Life' is not re-incarnation. This is not a single soul born into subsequent lives in different bodies. After a counterfactual introduction, Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910 to Richard and Sylvia Todd at Fox Hollow. As the story unfolds, Fox Hollow in these years is something of an English idyll, even when Ursula dies accidentally. We barely get time to take a breath as readers and she's born again, eventually to live through two world wars and many lives. 'Life After Life' quickly hits an immersive, enjoyable rhythm and never lets up even after you finish the book.

Atkinson's lush but sparse prose drives the novel. 'Life After Life' is written in clipped sentences, stripped down to be easily read and offer the maximum descriptive but not over-descriptive detail. Fox Hollow, in all it Fall-of-the-British-Empire sweet excess, is evoked to perfection. For 'Life After Life,' this is home base and you'll be returned here often. It's an oasis in the novel. Atkinson starts us out seeing the world through the eyes of Sylvia, Ursula's mother, until such time as Ursula can take over. The rewinds and time shifts are handled with an easy authority that let's Atkinson's magic-realism premise seem utterly natural. Perhaps there are hundreds, thousands of people who live such lives. Ursula's quickly becomes indelible.

Ursula is the core of a large cast of characters, each of them crisp and clear in Atkinson's carefully built worlds. 'Life After Life' is not such a big book; it's just a little over 500 pages and covers a life that spans most of the 20th century. Atkinson's ability to create complicated characters with an engaging economy makes the novel a rich, detailed reading experience. It's like going to party where everyone you meet is someone with whom you can have a real conversation, and you'll get a lot of them in this book. Atkinson's sense of dialogue lets her give voice to variety of characters both major and minor, all of them memorable. Ursula's families, actual and extended will feel familiar to you; they'll slot into your memory in much the same way as your own.

Given that the premise of the book involves restarting a life when it is interrupted by death, 'Life After Life' offers the author plenty of chances to create real and intense tension. Even if we know that for the plot to move forward, Ursula or someone close to her is going to die, seeing it play out during two world wars and their4 aftermaths is grippingly intense. Atkinson evokes the horrors of wars with shocking ease, reminding readers what it is like to be in the thick of a war fought on our home soil. Her Blitz is especially superb as her characters try to excavate themselves and others from the Mounds — a word that earns its capital letter.

'Life After Life' is an ambitious novel. Atkinson is one-upping herself, and happily for readers, she manages to do so with an ease and indeed a beauty that is striking and memorable. The echoes you'll find in the text will ripple trough your own perceptions. Immanence will find you; and having seen it through Ursula's eyes, the chances are that you'll recognize that life as your own. Another chance to make good, to turn things around. The pages in this book can keep turning. It's time to being life anew, to see a whole life, your life through new eyes.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us