I have recently finished reading Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’ and am left feeling bereft. Bereft because it was so good that I didn’t want it to end. Her writing style flows with the fluidity of a celluloid film projecting onto a screen. Her use of metaphor conjures up images in Technicolor. She makes it look so easy, and I am jealous.
The story revolves around Ursula Todd and the effect her reincarnations have on her family, friends and acquaintances, as well as herself. It is set between the period of 1910 and 1967, spanning a great era of change for the world at large, and especially Europe.
The horrors of the First World War are brought to the readers’ attention, describing the devastating effects this ‘war to end all wars’ had on its soldiers, as well as those left behind. But it is World War II that becomes Atkinson’s main focus: the destructive force of the Blitz; the frugality caused by rationing; the camaraderie of the British people; the suffering of the German people; and the indifference to death, coupled with the sorrow through loss.
Living through the eyes of the protagonist as she is reincarnated into an alternate reality, Atkinson illustrates perfectly how the subtlest of changes can have colossal ramifications: the butterfly effect. And underlying the whole theme of the narrative is the premise: What if Hitler had died at birth, been kidnapped or killed as a baby?
Would the aftermath been any different, or would history have provided an alternate catalyst for the world’s near destruction?
Ursula, like others around her, is aware she is different. But she’s not entirely sure why. The only indelible imprints of the reincarnation process are the fuzzy feelings she experiences sporadically, alongside vague memories of a life she feels she hasn’t lived. And overwhelming all of this is a pervading sense of doom that crops up to confuse, rather than edify her. There is also a sense that when one makes a change for the better, it may lead to another unanticipated disastrous event taking place further down the line. So no matter how many lives we live, can we ever get it right?
I was a few chapters in before I got my head around the whole rebirth motif, but it eventually made sense, and proved a clever cliffhanger from which to serve Ursula’s adventures on her next outing. For me, this book was compelling and it is obvious why it was the winner of the Costa Novel Award 2013, and rightly so.