Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

My other corking* good vacation book was Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Ursula Todd is born on a stormy winter night in 1911. Because of the snow storm the midwife doesn’t make it on time to deliver the baby, so the baby dies. End of story.

Not quite.

Life After Life, as the title implies, is all about  ‘do overs’.  Ursula is born again and this time she survives. But only for a few days. So the ‘do over’ button is pressed again. And again, and again, and again. And in a real twist, these lives aren’t at all  linear.  In one life Ursula may live into her twenties, the next life, she only lives until her teens. Then, we’re moved forward to another life when she’s in her thirties. Then, we go back to when she’s still a schoolgirl. 

Each time Ursula retains something from her prior life, a forewarning, something that could change the future outcome of events, perhaps even history.  We are introduced to characters who go unexplained until later.  Little images and scenes come back later with greater meaning and you nod your head as you recognize the significance after all.

Crazy and confusing right? 

Trust me it’s actually not. 

Yes, Life After Life is an unusual book, and if you’re like me it will take a few chapters to get into the perplexing style — but once once you settle in — it’s an amazing read.   You have to be willing to recalibrate and I often had to flip back to see when and where I was (For that reason alone, I recommend reading this in physical book form, it would be hard to navigate in e-book format).  Once the pace of the book becomes familiar, you won’t be able to put it down. 

Ms. Atkinson is a sophisticated writer with an impressive vocabulary and uses bits of Latin, French phrases, and entire paragraphs written in German (sometimes loosely translated, sometimes not at all).  She also references obscure books and quotes philosophers such as Nietzsche and Camus.  But please don’t let this dissuade you — Life After Life is not overly intellectual — trust me I got most of it and I don’t have a PhD — just a good dictionary.  Here’s an example (I’ve provided the definition):

Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet.  ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’
‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

 Ahh, I can hear you saying that’s the oldest premise ever (thinking Groundhog Day aren’t you?), but trust me dear Barmy readers, Ms. Atkinson’s imagination and creativity takes Life After Life to a whole new level.  She goes an unusual route to show that our character and choices don’t matter much either way. At times, Ursula gets killed in the exact same place and in the same way whether she’s a coward or a hero; a British secretary or high level civil servant; or even a German hausfrau. 

There is an impending feeling of dread as we wait to see what happens next to poor Ursula, but this is interspersed with humor and tenderness — mixing poignancy with a wry insights.  What I found most fascinating was this book took me everywhere from country village life, to 1960’s London, the Blitz and even (and somewhat unbelievably) Hitler’s Berchtesgaden.

There is literary genius in the manipulated narrative, but at its heart, Life After Life is simply a wonderful story, with many, many layers, tipped upside down and strewn about.  This book still has me thinking about possibilities and the role both choice and chance play in our lives.

In true appreciation, this goes on the keeper shelf for a second read.


*Corking:  A British term:  extremely fine —often used as an intensive, especially before good — I had a corking good time.


  1. MAF
    Aug 29, 2019

    me too – sounds fascinating!

  2. Adena
    Aug 27, 2019

    I’m so glad you liked one of my favorite novels! I have many times recommended it to shoppers at our Friends of the Library bookstore. Great summary. A big plus one for both the book and your review.

  3. Moi
    Aug 27, 2019

    Excited to look this one up! Thanks, Debba

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