"Ursula found it very odd to think that up above there were bombers being flown by men...They weren't evil, they were just doing what had been asked of them by their country. It was war itself that was evil, not men. -page 411
Ursula Todd is born on a cold and snowy night in 1910. She dies before she can take her first breath. No sooner does she die, that she is born again, on the same cold and snowy night, in the same English country home. Ursula continues to die, in varies ways and at varies ages throughout her life, but just as soon as darkness falls over her, Ursula is reborn, allowing her to live an infinite number of lives. As the 20th century barrels towards it's second cataclysmic world war, Ursula's seemingly unusual lifestyle may give her the power to save the world from its destructive destiny.
Kate Atkinson's Life After Life deals with the delicate idea of choices, and it argues that even the individual's smallest choices, can shape the face of history. But is the author right? It seems silly to believe that my choice of chocolate over vanilla will have some sort of worldly effect, but with more pointed decisions, like the one below that refers to Hitler, it is possible to be persuaded by Atkinson's argument.
“'He was born a politician.' said Eva. No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.”
The novel marches itself thoroughly through many of the early 20th century's most historic moments: World War I, the roaring 20s, the Spanish Influenza, and the Blitz of the United Kingdom in World War II. Atkinson assumes from the beginning of the story that the reader knows a certain amount of historical context, and therefore does not provide a grand overview. But rather, she uses the narrative technique of in medias res, which means "in the midst", to throw the reader right into the setting, using small details to reveal time and place.
I was curious though, so part way through the novel I found myself doing a bit of research on England throughout the 1900s (Wikipedia is good at times like these). Since I have now done some background reading, I can tell you that Atkinson's historical details are spot on, and her short fragmented style of writing allows the reader to feel the disjointed chaos of the time period.
The Blitz of 1940-41 consisted of over one-hundred German facilitated air-raids on the United Kingdom. The bombings were strategic, targeting London a total of 71 times, and other important cities ten or more. A good portion of the novel takes place during these years, and Ursula volunteers in the recovery squad that helped to locate and help survivors. Ursula herself dies in one of these attacks, even though she'd been hiding in an underground bomb shelter.
I love how novels can teach you so much, and maybe that's why I'm drawn to historical fiction time and time again. I love going into history class and already knowing lots about a particular time period because of something I have read. Sylvie, Ursula's mother, seems to agree...
“Sylvie’s knowledge, like Izzie's, was random yet far-ranging, ‘The sign that one has acquired one’s learning from reading novels rather than an education…”
I found the story a bit slow moving during certain moments, perhaps I found this so because since Ursula keeps living her life over and over again, many of the same events are revisited several times. This would be my only major complaint of the book, other than that the multiple lives were at times difficult to follow.
Along with its strong sense of setting, Life After Life also exhibits very strong characters. Often in novels, the main character's family is pushed to the background, remaining mysterious and static to the reader. In this book however, the Todd family is very much the opposite. Ursula's siblings: Maurice, Pamela, Teddy, and Jimmy are very much alive and prominent. Their story is told alongside Ursula's in away that is believable and impactful. In fact, without them, there would be very little story at all. Ursula's infinite resurrections allow her to not only try to save the world from pain and suffering, but also the people she loves as well.
Life After Life is a complicated, but smartly written novel, aimed at deepening the reader's perspective of history, choices and fate, and the idea that life can offer so much, if we allow it.
“'What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?'”