“Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.”
Author: Kate Atkinson Published: 2013 Pages: 529
Life after Life is a novel in which the protagonist, Ursula, experiences what it would be like to live your life again and again until you got it right. The novel begins with her death at birth which triggers a cycle by which she is able to re-write the poorly made consequences of her life over and over again. From domestic abuse, to becoming Hitler’s friend, surely everyone has something they wouldn’t mind redoing from the beginning? Ursula’s life is full of unexpected twists and as she grows older, she learns the true consequence of her past mistakes.
What is most peculiar about this book is the lack of clarity by which everything happens. Rarely are things explicitly stated, a fact which is both liberating and frustrating, and so took me at least a hundred pages to fully grasp the complexity of it all. Ursula is never aware that her life has begun again, but there are peripheral hints which become hard for her to ignore: “It was along time ago now. And it was yesterday.”
I love the way that Atkinson takes a supernatural phenomenon – time travel (or regeneration) – and makes it so plausible that the book seems as if it was taken from an actual testimony throughout the twentieth century. The events that happen in the novel are mostly mundane everyday occurrences which are only briefly interrupted by the freckling of Ursula’s (short-lived) deaths. Furthermore, a big portion of the book is set in the midst of World War II, a time in which not only is Ursula’s life a lot less stable, but also with so much tension it makes the perfect setting for one to re-write some mistakes and try and alter the horrible mistakes of others.
The eerie repetition of “darkness fell” which concludes many chapters really reiterates the fragility of life, of all characters, and of all humans, not just Ursula. Her new beginnings bring a sense of irony to the novel: are all of her different lives just alternative endings which Atkinson had thought up but ultimately glued together to bring us this thought-provoking piece of literature? Or are we really all waiting for fate to bring our own darkness so we may progress on to a more suitable ending?