Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

71faIQpMMIL._SL1500_An arresting first two pages: a real-life dictator – who history tells us was not assassinated – is assassinated by a British woman at point-blank range in Germany in 1930. There is a jump-cut to 1910 and a baby is stillborn. Then another jump-cut and the same baby is born safely. She grows into a little girl, Ursula. As a five-year old Ursula slips to her death off an icy roof when trying to rescue a beloved toy – and on the next page is interrupted in her climb out of the window and told to come to tea, only to die later of influenza. We follow Ursula throughout her lives into adulthood as she dies again several times: in bombing raids in a London basement during the Blitz and even at the hands of a murderous husband. She also commits suicide – as a British woman in a ruined Berlin in 1945, killing herself before the Russians arrive. Kate Atkinson is about as good a plotter to have ever written a novel, and that’s just as well with this one. She also likes a bleak joke: in her brilliant Case Histories, Jackson Brodie rescues a stray cat, thereby surviving the sudden explosion which destroys his house ‘just like that’. Returning in Life After Life to the London house where we know she has died before, Ursula bends down to pick a stray dog up. She is still killed, this time by a wall that falls after the explosion. On another occasion, as a rescue worker, Ursula finds the bodies of the residents of the same house. She doesn’t know them, of course. But we do and the sadness (for us) is magnified even as Ursula is oblivious. So why? Why all this misery and chance? What is the point of these diverging lifelines? Perhaps they illustrate above all the impact on our lives of both the choices we make and the circumstances over which we have no control. By the end, Ursula understands that she is different. A philosopher once suggested the world is divided into those who find the universe tragic and those who believe it to be comic. On this evidence, Atkinson probably just about slips into the latter camp but it’s a close-run thing.

 

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