Life after life is a beautifully wrought, unique novel that blends the concept of continuous reincarnation into an outstanding work of historical fiction. The reader experiences the tumultuous period of two world wars through Ursula, a heroine buffeted through multiple lives, the course of which vary wildly with each incarnation.
Each reimagining of her life highlights how we are all victims of circumstance and that destinies can change with just one altered decision. It also allows Atkinson to examine events and characters from multiple angles, vividly recreating a world now lost and depicting the raw, human devastation experienced by civilians on both British and German sides.
Although the book opens with the attempted assassination of Hitler, it immediately jumps to Ursula’s birth, setting a tone of displacement that runs throughout the book as her lives take stunted, weaving paths through a maze of life events. Ursula herself is a somewhat lonely figure, forever at the mercy of the twists and turns of her lives, and the collusion of an unknown force disguised as happenstance. As such, it is hard to get a handle on what she wants, and what really drives her, as she and the reader are awash with the endless possibilities of her numerous lives.
The only constant throughout is the love and dedication of her family; a rich assembly of characters each with their set of nuances and hidden depths that can be uniquely probed through the varied destinies they are entwined within. As the story progresses, Ursula’s prophesied destiny becomes remote and in a sense unnecessary as the heart of the story is not a heroic assassination, but her love for her family and the arcadia within which they reside.
A feeling of nostalgia resonates throughout as it documents the passing of a world now gone, a time that can now only be looked upon through the lens of history. Kate Atkinson brings that world back to life, creating an intimacy and immediacy to the war and those caught within it whilst at the same time allowing the reader’s soul to soar at the prospect of the fairytale moment that could have prevented it all.
Review by Kate Vickers