“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson (2013)  544 pages

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Here is how “Life After Life” begins.

It is February 11, 1910, and a baby, a girl, is being born at home to the Todd family at Fox Corner near Beaconsfield in England.  The birth goes terribly wrong, because the umbilical cord is twisted around the baby’s neck, and the baby dies.

This would be a very short novel, except our story starts again.

It is February 11, 1910, and a baby, a girl, is being born to the Todd family at Fox Corner.  The umbilical cord is twisted around the baby’s neck.  This time old family doctor, Dr. Fellows, arrives in time to cut the cord, and the baby girl, Ursula, lives on to have more adventures.

So it goes.  “Life After Life” makes us think of all the perilous misadventures that might have occurred and severely affected us or even ended our lives.

A few years ago my family and I took our regular trip up to my parents’ place, and somehow the talk turned to my own birth.  At the dinner table my mother mentioned that I had been born several weeks premature.  She talked about this as though it explained quite a lot about me.  Up until then I had not known about this at all.  I’m still trying to come to terms with this basic fact.

“Life After Life” has the imaginative plot where if our hero Ursula Todd or one of her closest relatives or friends meets a bad end, we can rewind the story and start again.  But this is far from science fiction.  The method used in “Life After Life” may be quite innovative, but it is used for the most traditional of purposes, to create an affectionate portrait of an English family.  Even if you are not from England, this novel will make you feel nostalgic for English family life between the Wars.

The Todds are loving and loveable, strong and spunky, spunky enough to win World War II despite the heavy bombardment.  There is stoic father Hugh, prim mother Sylvie, practical sister Pamela, obnoxious big brother Maurice, adorable quiet brother Teddy, and bumptious baby brother Jimmy. Finally there is of course plucky Ursula Todd who as an adult somehow manages to be both on an English civil defense team rescuing townspeople from bombings and also visiting in Germany to meet Hitler and his girlfriend Eva Braun.  Only Aunt Izzy is a free spirit, and plenty of scorn is heaped on her except for one time when she comes through dramatically for Ursula.

Kate Atkinson is a strong and steady writer.  I discovered her on her first novel “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”, and since then have always been on the lookout for her novels.  She also writes detective novels about former detective Jackson Brodie.  I expect that “Life After Life” will be a strong contender for the Booker prize this year.

As a sidelight, there is an unexpected mention in “Life After Life” of ‘Casaubon’ that made it seem for me that all the endless hours I’ve spent reading novels were worthwhile.

“Life After Life” is of course a tour de force and a crowd pleaser, and if you haven’t already read a dozen other English novels about spunky English families, you will like “Life After Life” even more than I did.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. I like the premise for this. Sounds like it would be an awesome read. Thank you for sharing it!

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  2. I’m pretty sure I’ll like this as well. I’ve only read Case Histories which I thought was excellent. I wonder why I read books I end up not liking when there are other books around I’m sure I will like.
    It’s interesting your parents didn’t tell you that earlier.

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    • Hi Caroline,
      About my being a premature baby, this is the type of information parents didn’t share with their kids back in those days. They might have worried that this kind of information might affect the kid adversely, but also parents didn’t share with kids except on a need to know basis. Even I sometimes think that parents today over-share with their kids.
      And, yes, I did read your Stedman review. It seems that no matter how hard we try, there will be a few books that we don’t like that well mixed in with the rest.

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  3. I have just begun this book and already I love it. The language is just wonderful. Thanks to your review, I was prepared for the painful descriptions of death (I’ve encountered two already). Other reviews made me shy away from this great book, so I’m grateful to you.

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    • Hi Charlotte,
      I continue to have trouble accepting that ‘Life After Life’ was left off the Booker Prize longlist. It indicates a lack of taste on the judges’ part. By now I’ve read a few of the novels on the longlist and none so far compares with “Life After Life”.

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      • I did admire ‘The Testament of Mary’, but thought it an odd Booker choice, given its narrow scope. Apparently there is talk that the Booker may be opened to American writers — I can’t see why that would be a good idea. They need more choices?? An announcement of changes is expected Wednesday. I continue to enjoy ‘Life After Life.’

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        • Hi Charlotte,
          I’ve always thought the novels written in the UK are on the whole better than the ones published in the US. A few of the US ones get hyped more but that doesn’t make them better or as good.

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