For all sorts of reasons it took me a lot longer to read Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s new novel, than I thought it was going to. In one respect I didn’t really mind this, as it is the sort of book you don’t want to finish. I was deeply involved with many of the characters, not the least Ursula, the main protagonist, and before anyone says it, that wasn’t just because she is so frequently referred to as ‘little bear’. Also, being me, I was intrigued by the way in which the book is structured, with the narrative line of Ursula’s life cycling back on itself time after time as she is ‘given’ repeated opportunities to walk her path in a different way deliberately nudging the life stories of those around her as she goes. So I was sorry when I eventually had to close the book for the last time and glad that I spent rather longer in the company of the Todd family than I had anticipated.
However, in another way, reading this over an extended period caused problems most of which stemmed from that same structure, intriguing though it is. For the first half of the book (250 pages or so) which I read over a single day, I was doing fine. I was keeping the different characters, their relationships to each other and the way in which they were involved in the action reasonably straight and when something different happened, or when a character who had been missing in the previous life but had been in earlier ones turned up, my sharply honed reading skills pinned what was going on. But, having lost almost a whole day and with the time lines through which Ursula lives becoming longer and increasingly complex, this became more and more difficult. And, as I suspect that most people will have to read it over four or five days, I would suggest that before you embark on a novel that, despite all my misgivings, I think demands to be read, you invest in a notebook in which to jot down a few important names as you go.
Having said all that I think that whatever the circumstances in which I had read Life After Life I would have wanted to find an excuse to re-read it because I don’t feel this is a book that gives up all its secrets just on one reading. There is so much going on here and I, at least, was so beguiled by the slightly ironic narrative voice, that I am sure I missed not only the relationship between some of the ‘lives’ but also many clues as to the reason why Ursula, having died repeatedly, keeps goes back to that snowy February day in 1910 and starting all over again. (And while we’re about it, what about some sympathy for Sylvie, her mother, who has to keep giving birth to her on umpteen dozen occasions.) In one of her final times round Dr Kellet (nice chap, turns up quite often) asks her if she knows what reincarnation is, but that isn’t quite what Ursula is experiencing. As I understand it, if one is reincarnated one comes back in a future time and as someone else. In Ursula’s case each time she dies and is reborn it is as herself and in the same place and time as before. She comes back, presumably, because she has a role to fulfil that either her premature death or the path that she has followed, has prevented. Perhaps she has a life to save or even a life to take. Whatever the reason, each time she feels the darkness taking her over, as a reader I was glad that she was going to have another chance to reshape what had happened to her in the life she had just experienced.
But, there is more going on here than just that, I’m sure. What, for example, are we meant to make of the occasion when Ursula recognises that she is not going to die and is forced to face a life she no longer wants to live?
What a world of difference there was between dying and nearly dying. One’s whole life, in fact. Ursula felt she had no use for the life that she had been saved for.
Or the later instance, clearly signalled as a turning point:
She had never chosen death over life before and as she was leaving she knew something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed.
I haven’t got a strong enough grasp of quite what is happening here yet or of whether it is significant that several of the early deaths come about because of the way in which women were either treated or expected to behave in the opening decades of the twentieth century. I need to go back and start again but of one thing I am sure, this is a book that is worth reading twice.
So, any members of the book groups to which I belong reading this be warned, you know what my next choice is going to be. Buy your copy now.