This book seems to have made it to pretty much every list of the best books of 2013. The premise is interesting: if you could live your life over and over again until you got it right, would you actually get it right?
The main character is Ursula, a British girl born in 1930, who, after several attempts, makes it to adulthood during the Second World War. You follow her life after life. The first time she is stillborn. The next time she lives to be a toddler but is drowned at the beach. The next time, a painter on the beach rescues her and she lives a little longer. With each life, she manages to avoid the thing that killed her in the last one.
The book actually starts, not with the still birth but in a prologue, with Ursula as an adult shooting Hitler (and of course, she gets killed doing it). After this startling chapter, the book goes on to her birth and various lives in Britain, so by the time you find her in Hitler’s castle, cosying up to Eva Braun with her sights on the Fuhrer, you’ve forgotten the prologue and the jump feels forced.
Also, it gets a little tedious towards the middle, when her lives become variations on a theme. I felt claustrophobic, stuck in a story that wasn’t really going anywhere. Kate Atkinson’s strength is her intricate plotting. The different strands of her stories all come together in the end, revealing the larger design, which makes for a very satisfying read. This does happen in Life after Life, but it takes a little too long.
Atkinson’s writing, however, does not disappoint. The adult Ursula (during most of her lives) is in London during the Blizt. I have read other books about this period but this is the first one where I felt like I was there. Incendiary bombs clatter down like “a giant coal scuttle being emptied”. An explosion, when you’re in the middle of it, “seemed to go on forever, to have a character that changed and developed as it went along”. Seemingly unimportant actions like going upstairs to get your knitting or running across the road to rescue a dog can make the difference between life and death.
And this is ultimately what this book is about. The small things that you do or that happen to you, often unnoticed, that change your life. And as for the question this book poses: no, you never manage to get everything right, but you do eventually become a little smarter.