Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

A great fan of Kate Atkinson’s fiction, I put off trying this volume because its blurb sounded rather a domestic-family-history sort of thing, not my favorite subject matter.  The first few chapters did little to dispel that, but the super-hooky opening scene had already fulfilled its function and I kept on, to find about 10% of the way in that the story suddenly became more intriguing when Ursula died and her life began again, the first of many such re-sets.

Between those jumps, the narrative superficially resembles a classic British novel of woman’s place and yearnings, but as subsequent incarnations multiply with varying consistency, both character and reader become conscious of something more; the insidious impact which even a small amount of future-sight might have on one’s actions, reactions and dreams.  By the end of this substantial tale (a long-ish read in the beginning and end, though the middle portions hold the attention very well and overall one is sad to leave its world), both are armed with enough information to anticipate and dread events in roughly equal measure.

Testament to the effectiveness with which Atkinson parcels out information to the reader and her character, is that we discover and wonder at her situation in much the same way she does.  This manipulative skill was already apparent in her earlier Case Histories, but is here even more integral to the ideas being explored and the craft being applied.

Another point of appreciation is the degree to which Ursula’s life and tale are not ruled by romance.  Yes there are scenes of her first encounters with boys (informed by her lack of intimate education, these feel both historically accurate and quite amusing) and later affairs, but this is no Bronte or Austin creation, desperately seeking the right man to validate and support her. What really guides Ursula is the desire to craft a unique place and impact in the world that reflects her personality and abilities – a compass too often granted to male protagonists and not their female counterparts.

As always, it is conclusion that makes a story truly successful or not. Here the most dramatic act is unsettled – we are not allowed to see how it plays out – except that once we think a bit, we do know, both by our own experience outside the novel and by the coda-like scenes which follow it.  As much as we enjoy the return of one of her favorite relatives, he would not have been missing in the first place if her plan had succeeded as intended, so…

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and deeply satisfying work, reflecting and engendering serious thought about family, literature, destiny, philosophy and the very nature of existence.   Oh, and much less ponderous than that last makes it sound…

Worthy of a re-read, though unlike Ursula I do not find my time multiplying endlessly. And besides, there is a subsequent volume, A God in Ruins, picking up on another character from Ursula’s lives.

So much to look forward to!


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