When I was in my teens, summer nights were often spent in the company of three or four neighbor kids, all the same age. I remember sitting under the stars, eating pizza, playing cards, and sharing our hopes and dreams. One summer, we became a little obsessed with the ways small events could completely change our lives. It probably started with something serious, but eventually we came to see even the tiniest detail as potentially significant: “If I hadn’t eaten this pizza, our whole lives would be different.” It was a bit of silliness, really, but reading Life After Life sent me down memory lane, wondering which seemingly inconsequential events and decisions actually had far-reaching consequences.
In Life After Life, Ursula Todd is born again and again, and each time her life takes a different course. She dies repeatedly, in many ways and at different times. In the first few pages, Ursula dies immediately after birth. Later, an adult Ursula dies in one of several bomb blasts in London during World War II. Each of her lives plays out differently, and often has an effect on the lives of family members and friends. Sometimes Ursula’s life feels vaguely familiar to her:
And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur—if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.
And at other times, she acts impulsively to change the course of events:
Ursula had done a wicked thing, she had pushed Bridget down the stairs. Bridget might have died and she would have been a murderer now. All she knew was that she had to do it. The great sense of dread had come over her and she had to do it.
I absolutely loved this book. Kate Atkinson brilliantly constructed a series of intricate life stories, repeatedly taking the reader back to specific points in time: Ursula’s birth, the 1918 Armistice, the London Blitz. It was fascinating to see lives take so many paths, and how often this was due more to small everyday events than to life’s “big decisions.” I enjoyed the way Ursula would sometimes act to change the future based on knowledge from an earlier life. Atkinson also kept me guessing about other characters in the story. In one life, something bad would happen to them. Would it happen again in Ursula’s next life? Or would their fate take a slightly different turn?
Life After Life was a bit like working a challenging puzzle. This book begs to be re-read as I’m sure there are details I missed. And I know I’d enjoy it just as much the next time, and the next …