A new year is well and truly upon us and so is a fresh year of book club reading. Monday was the first time since our annual Christmas dinner we had all been together. Given this, the first glass of wine was spent catching up on everyone’s adventures over the Christmas and New Year period. To kick off the year’s reading, Our Little Book Club choose to review Kate Atkinson’s 2013 award-winning novel Life After Life, which one of our book club members, Jenni, aptly described as like Downton Abbey crossed with The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Atkinson’s book follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. Essentially she continues to be reincarnated, with vague, dream-like remembrances from her previous lives. Ursula is given the chance to make different choices, to ever so slightly change the course of her life.
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life was both an enjoyable read … and a frustrating one. The reincarnation of Ursula again and again makes the book feel repetitive to begin with, and there are a couple of plot threads left unresolved. I also found each tragic death of Ursula upsetting, particularly as a child, even though I quickly realised she would be given a second (or third) chance by morning.
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Teddy asks her.
― Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
However, Atkinson’s sympathetic and well-rounded characters made this a compelling book. As a reader, I cared about Ursula and her family, and this kept me engaged. There was a real “Englishness” to the novel which I loved, beyond the obvious English countryside and London settings. The humour and banter between her characters, their attitude to life seemed so very, well, English. Atkinson has a easy style of writing, and even with such a complicated narrative, as a reader I was never confussed.
Atkinson has said that she began to write Life After Life after becoming intrigued by “one of the most potent and familiar” of all “What if?” scenarios: What would have happened if Hitler had been prevented from coming to power? Yet the reader does not get the chance to glimpse a world where Hitler is not in power. We are instead shown the intimate, ever-evolving life/s of Ursula; a world which is flawed and fragile, where life often hangs by a thread.
As a Book Club discussion, this was a beauty. We found a lot to discuss about Atkinson’s novel: the supernatural, hindsight, destiny, fate, and our own influence on those around us. As always, I came away from the evenings discussion feeling I gained a better insight or at the very least, a better understanding of the themes running through Life After Life. Book club discussions always reveal something I missed!
So, would I recommend Life After Life as a book club read? Absolutely… It’s such an interesting book on many levels. To finish with one of my favourite quotes from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life…
“You can step in the same river but the water will always be new.”
― Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
What has your book club chosen this month to read? Have you read “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson … what did you think?