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Fiction

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-after-life

I brought home Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life from the one-week loan shelf. Following the tradition of previous years, I aim to read a few books from the Women’s Fiction Prize (previously called Orange Prize), although this year I have decided not to read all of them due to this reason here.

Running at 463 pages it is a big daunting novel to consume and I will explain why later on.

Ursula Todd is born in 1910 England, during a snowstorm. She dies before she can take her first breath. Ursula Todd is born again and lives to tell the tale and then she dies in several different circumstances.

You see, Ursula Todd is given a chance to live her life again and again. Ursula doesn’t know, but the readers hope Ursula could get it right. Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century (WWI and WWII) again and again. Most her lifetime(s) span from 1910 to 1947, although there was one instance that I was slightly happy to find that she lives beyond 1947. You can see why this book runs till 463 pages, because there is bound to be a slight repetition.

I was reminded of a German movie I watched in 1999 when Run, Lola, Run first screened in cinema. Everyday Lola wakes up, she makes a different decision. These different decisions, mostly a split second of a decision, takes Lola to different consequences.

I thought it was entertaining to watch such storyline on movie but would it be the same feeling reading a story that starts (opens with “Snow”) and stops (“When darkness falls”) , starts and stops, starts and stops for so many times?

The truth is such story format is exhausting at the beginning. The motivation to read a book is to find what is at the other end. So if it ends prematurely, it gives me a feeling that I have to start all over again. We all know that feeling of “having to start all over again”. The first 70 pages or so, do test my patience a little bit. I persevere, and once I got past the start/stop marks and the story extends a little longer, I actually enjoy it.

Albeit many changes, there are a few constants in Ursula’s lives. Ursula loves her father Hugh. Sylvie, was a distant and critical mother. Maurice, her brother, whom Ursula didn’t quite get along; but Ursula loves her elder sister to bits. There is gentle younger brother Teddy, who fancy Nancy Cole, the neighbour. An elusive brother, Jimmy. The cook Mrs Glover and maid Bridget. In times of need, Ursula’s unconventional aunt, Izzie provides the refuge. Ursula sees a, what was called a mind doctor back then, called Dr. Kellet. A string of Ursula’s lovers…. So yes, there are plenty of names and characters to get acquainted with.

Reading the novel, it always dawn on me: Just like my life, on hindsight how easy it is to identify the significant points of Ursula’s lives that she could have made a better decision, what if she took a different course of action? What if she turns around and walks away from danger? I have my regrets in a certain point of my life when I look back and thought “I should have done this, I could have made that decision…” but in every lives, Ursula doesn’t always get it right.

People muddled through events and only in retrospect realised their significance. – page 324

‘No point in thinking,’ she said briskly, ‘You just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.’ (The transformation was complete.) – page 404

Amor fati – Love of fate. It means acceptance. Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced. – page 440 

This is my first book written by Kate Atkinson therefore I wouldn’t be able to make a judgement of what her other novels are like. Atkinson writes with confident. I didn’t like the overuse of Latin, the French and the German languages thrown into the mix¸ including pompous vocabulary (hoi polloi, Froideur, soigné etc). They are featured too many times in this novel and it makes the writing feels a little pretentious and put-on overall. It feels a little Froideur!

I was puzzled and bored the first 70 pages, hooked when Ursula grew into a young confident and not so confident woman (depending which story you are reading). There was one chapter of her life that is so violent and horrible that I wish it would end for Ursula. Then it followed a re-enactment of several versions of the WWII. It recalls the experience of the London Blitz, there is a knight in the book who saves St. Paul Cathedral from being shelled, it also gives me a glimpse of the lives of Hitler and his mistress, Eva. Towards the end I started to feel impatient and wondered when the book will finally “end”. I must admit, it was a rollercoaster ride for me.

St.-Pauls-BlitzThe cathedral survived despite being targeted during the Blitz — it was struck by bombs on 10 October 1940 and 17 April 1941. On 12 September 1940 a time-delayed bomb that had struck the cathedral was successfully defused and removed by a bomb disposal detachment of Royal Engineers under the command of Temporary Lieutenant Robert Davies. Had this bomb detonated, it would have totally destroyed the cathedral, as it left a 100-foot (30 m) crater when later remotely detonated in a secure location.

However the above are minor quibbles. I like reading books that make me think. After reading this, I thought in hindsight I should have undone the many wrongs and chosen a different path or a least resistance path in my life. Sometimes I am filled with regrets, sometimes I am full of hope. Whatever I feel I knew my life is going to be just this one, I don’t think I’ll ever want to relive my life again because it would be too tiring. Even if I live all over it again, I wouldn’t have the foresight to know which is the right way to live it. Free will vs fate. Life is filled with so much permutations and variables that it is just impossible for any of us to make an informed decision about which direction our lives will take.

The key message of the novel is big but the novel can be cumbersome to read. If you don’t mind that Ursula died 20 times (I have kept a counter!), then you would find the whole reading experience quite unusual and entertaining.

Will this win the Women’s Prize Fiction? It faces a stiff competition from Bring Up the Bodies, but this book is much talked about. I think Life After Life stands a good chance.

Rating: four stars

So many other positive views:

Claire@Word by Word: It is clear that Kate Atkinson refuses to be bound by genre, labels or form, preferring freedom in her approach, she resists categorisation which makes her an exciting and unpredictable writer, even if she risks occasionally losing her readers as she embarks on a course to suit her own writerly desire and imagination and not the expectations of any particular audience. That I truly admire.

The Book Stop: Don’t pick up this book expecting a Jackson Brodie-like mystery novel, or straight-up historical fiction.  This is a book you’ll work at, and think about, and appreciate for its complexity.

Book MagnetLife After Life left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again.

She Reads NovelsLife After Life is a very clever, complex novel; I was so impressed by it!

Bookish Realm: But that is digressing. “Life After Life” is awesome because of all the thoughts it makes you think, of all the doors and windows it opens in your mind. Despite the temptation to “finally get it right”, I don’t think it’s possible because “right” is one of the most relative subjects there is, changing in time and space. I think what I personally take with me from this book is amor fati

Hardback. Publisher: Transworld 2013Printed Length: 463 pages; Setting: London, UKSource: Reading Central Library copyFinished reading on: 22nd April 2013, Monday.

About the writer:

kate-atkinson

Kate Atkinson MBE (born 1951) is an English author.

She was born in York, and studied English Literature at the University of Dundee, gaining her Masters Degree in 1974. She subsequently studied for a doctorate in American Literature. She has often spoken publicly about the fact that she failed at the viva (oral examination) stage. After leaving university, she took on a variety of jobs from home help to legal secretary and teacher. She lived in Whitby, North Yorkshire, for a time, but now lives in Edinburgh.

Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year ahead of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and Roy Jenkins’s biography of William Ewart Gladstone. It went on to be a Sunday Times bestseller. Since then, she has published another five novels, one play, and one collection of short stories. Her work is often celebrated for its wit, wisdom and subtle characterisation, and the surprising twists and plot turns. Her most recent work has featured the popular former detective Jackson Brodie.

Atkinson was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to literature

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

33 thoughts on “Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

  1. Wonderful review!!

    Posted by bookmagnet | April 26, 2013, 12:48 am
  2. Great! I guess I’ll put it into my TBR list!

    Posted by fingerprintale | April 26, 2013, 3:05 am
  3. I saw this at our local bookstore and left without buying it, feeling quite similarly to you: how many times would I need to start this plot over? I just may read it some day, but for now I have better books calling my name.

    Posted by Bellezza | April 26, 2013, 3:08 am
  4. One of my fears with this book was also the “starting over” factor, but now I think it was quite elegantly solved overall (there wasn’t that much repetition I think, the parts we had already read about were mostly just jumped over and continued with new narrative). I did love the book and am curious to try out some other Atkinson’s novels :)

    Posted by Riv @ Bookish Realm | April 26, 2013, 5:30 am
    • Riv,
      You are right. It sort of jumped over, so it is not too much repetition. I am curious to try out other Atkinson’s novels too now!! :D

      Posted by JoV | April 26, 2013, 7:28 am
      • And that reminded me, there is also a hilarious comedy where the same technique is used – “Groundhog Day” (with Bill Murray). The guy gets to live over the same day again and agay.

        If you are interested in other reviews on “Life After Life”, here is mine – http://bookishrealm.blogspot.fi/2013/04/review-life-after-life-by-kate-aktinson.html :)

        Posted by Riv @ Bookish Realm | April 26, 2013, 8:43 am
        • Riv,
          OMG Riv! I am sitting on a work meeting now and my Project Manager mentioned the Groundhog Day!! What a coincidence!
          I will put your review on post. Thanks for your comments. :)

          Posted by JoV | April 26, 2013, 2:54 pm
          • Hihi :)) Sometimes it happens you learn about something new and then stumble upon it twice within the next five minutes :) Thank you for adding my review to your post. I can see how most of the reviews on “Life After Life” are indeed maybe even unproportionally positive, but I can’t help it – it’s been, for me, the best read of this year so far.

            Posted by Riv @ Bookish Realm | April 27, 2013, 8:55 am
          • Riv,
            I am a strong believer that we are linked up in some mysterious way in the universe, it is just that the digital age has speed up the association within minutes, in our case 5 minutes! I couldn’t believe my Project Manager talks about groundhog day in the meeting because we are talking about recycling an approach!

            Posted by JoV | April 27, 2013, 9:22 pm
  5. My wife is about to read this for her book group – it sounds pretty good to me, but looks like a challenging read. I have read two or three Kate Atkinson books but Behind The Scenes at the Museum, her first book, was really excellent. I loved the trailer for Run Lola Run.

    Posted by Tom Cunliffe | April 26, 2013, 6:54 am
    • Tom,
      I hope you get to watch Run Lola Run one day. The movie stuck to my head all these years, perhaps then the idea was very refreshing. You know the chance the whole idea that you can live your life again and again. It’s not so challenging, but I would say it can be a little frustrating at part for this book. That’s just me, many people seems to enjoy it. I look forward to hear what you wife thinks. Maybe she can do a guest post in your blog?

      Posted by JoV | April 26, 2013, 7:30 am
  6. I had no idea how long it was as I read it on the kindle, sometimes that’s a good thing, I know having read Flight Behaviour in the hardback library copy, the sheer size of it at times kept me from continuing.

    Life after Life is closely tied into the effect of that structure, when I finished it I had difficulty extracting the arc of the story, I kept thinking about it and realising it wasn’t the story I was thinking about but that whole concept of turning points in one’s life. Even the fact that she said in an interview that she might write a book about Teddy, the younger brother had me wondering which life that would be, or would it be another life altogether, and is Ursula the only one who experiences this life after life?

    You have enough challenges not to have to add another to your reading list of 2013, you must leave time for a few completely obligation free choices :) That’s my challenge, read as freely as possible, allow oneself to be influenced by all these wonderful suggestions out there.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | April 26, 2013, 7:11 am
    • Claire,
      I think so too about too much challenges! :) I haven’t check off books for this year’s reading challenges yet. :)
      Not sure if I will read Teddy’s life again and again but I like Kate Atkinson as an experimental writer.
      Did I tell you the publisher rejected by request at Netgalley for Life After Life? So I have to resort to Big, Fat, Hardback reading experience. :(

      Flight Behaviour is another Big, Fat, Hardback on my shelf right now. :)

      Posted by JoV | April 26, 2013, 7:35 am
  7. She dies 20 times?! Wow. No wonder I got irritated by it! Glad you liked this one more than me

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | April 26, 2013, 10:29 am
    • Jackie,
      LOL I count up to 18th and 19th time and then remember that I missed out on the 1st death of what seems like a prologue in the book! so 20th.
      The key to reading this book, is to persevere.

      Posted by JoV | April 26, 2013, 2:56 pm
  8. Interesting concept but the off and on thing and the beginning and stopping would drive me nuts.

    Posted by Ti | April 26, 2013, 1:19 pm
  9. I love the thought of reliving a life over and voer and putting right what once went wrong wouldn’t we all change a little something from time to time ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | April 26, 2013, 3:21 pm
  10. I’ve only read positive things about this book. Interesting to see you had a few small problems with it makes it sound more normal! I am really intrigued by the concept of this book and think I need to read it :-P

    Posted by jessicabookworm | April 26, 2013, 4:20 pm
  11. Jo, it’s lovely to see a balanced review of this title – most of the ones I have seen have been gushing to the point that my expectations of it are probably too high!

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | April 26, 2013, 9:38 pm
    • Sam,
      It is a good solid book. But I am an impatient reader, this book probably work against me. But the less fortunate Ursula who seems to get everything wrong in her life, won my biggest sympathy! Hope you have a great weekend.

      Posted by JoV | April 27, 2013, 9:00 pm
  12. I think I’ve seen a bunch of reviews that say you should persist because it gets better after a very very very slow start. This is useful to know! I am myself inclined to abandon books too hastily at times, and it’s valuable to be forewarned that I’m going to have to be a bit patient to get to the good bits.

    Posted by Jenny | April 27, 2013, 3:26 pm
    • Jenny,
      I think that’s why reviews do help us to make a judgement. For me it gets better and better, and then it went down hill again towards the end. I am an impatient reader, so the format works against me. ;)

      Posted by JoV | April 27, 2013, 9:24 pm
  13. My hold just came through – so I am going to pick this one soon. I can see how the plot can feel “repetitive” because of all her lives you read about – I’m curious about when this book can even be considered finished – what is the target of this book? I’m hoping to get to it soon.

    Posted by Athira | May 1, 2013, 11:53 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: A little update… | JoV's Book Pyramid - May 12, 2013

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  3. Pingback: About Mary, a Hen, Zohra’s Ladder, a crime in Turkey and my first book of Jackson Brodie’s series | JoV's Book Pyramid - September 26, 2014

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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