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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Getting a Re-do in Life

I completed the novel Life After Life by Kate Atkinson last night and I can’t stop thinking about it. The world the author creates is a dangerous place. The seemingly comfortable middle class life in the English countryside in the first half of the twentieth century is deceptive. A life can quickly and unexpectedly end by umbilical cord, beating, bombing, drowning, falling, and more. Death is ever present in life.
Although the story of Ursula Todd begins with her birth in 1910, the book is not chronological, and does not follow a sequence of events. It jumps from 1930 to 1910 to 1914, back to 1910, 1947, 1910, 1945, 1926, 1940 and so on. The author’s narrative device is telling and re-telling Ursula’s story through multiple outcomes to her life changing choices. The book is almost like one of those children’s chapter books where the reader chooses an ending from a number of choices. But it’s not exactly like that because Ursula has fragments of memories from other outcomes (or other lives?) in the same life. So the different outcomes and lives feel connected. The characters remain the same, but the endings change.
At one point in the book, Ursula’s beloved brother Teddy says, “What if we had a chance to do it [live our lives] again and again until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“I think it would be exhausting,” replies Ursula.
This book may sound exhausting with the repeated events, but that’s not all there is to the story.  The characterization of Ursula and her parents, brothers and sister really hold the book together, in my opinion. Their personalities remain the same through the different parts of the book. 
The book also mesmerizes because of the vividly drawn story of the London Blitz. The descriptions of life during the constant bombing of civilians were so real and horrifying that I felt like I lived through the Blitz myself.  
I can’t give away the “end” of the book, but Ursula attempts to change major events of the twentieth century for a better outcome for not just herself, but for her loved ones and society. This may sound kooky, but the book is deftly written and cleverly controlled. The story holds your attention even though the author goes back and tells the story of Ursula’s birth and other major events in her life over and over with different results. The effect is strongly compelling. As a reader, you are pulling for Ursula to get it right. I guarantee you will not want to put down this amazing book.  I will definitely read more by Kate Atkinson. She is a genius.