Review of Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Originally written: 01 June 2014

I wish I could read more of the current books but life is short and my time for 21st century reading is limited, so I choose my books carefully. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was an excellent choice: it left my with new knowledge, deeper understanding, new questions to ask of the world, so it was worth the time. I listened to the unabridged audio version, so my pleasure was enhanced by the warm expressive voice of Fenella Woolgar.

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Time is a strange phenomenon sometimes represented as a river, and it does have that quality of flowing liquid, but as it relates to the events of our personal lives it more closely resembles a viscous fluid that captures scenes, interactions, accidents, and snap decisions, and freezes us into hard paths and rutted patterns, and when you have made an error does not let you go back and have a re-do. Unless you are Ursula Todd, the heroine of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

I call Ursula by the old-fashioned term “heroine” because after many redo’s and much practice at the art of living, Ursula really is able to transform herself from a clueless girl prone to accidents, over-trusting, and poor decisions, into a true heroine. Ursula, it seems has both a propensity to die young, and the ability to go back in time to the snowy day of her birth on February 11, 1910, the middle of five children in a middle class English family.

Is it an accident that her birthday is close to Groundhog Day? Perhaps having her born February 2 might have been a little too obvious. Since the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, the old folk tradition seems to have taken on extended cultural meaning as a symbol for multiple repetitions on the same event — going over the same ground, so to speak.

Wikipedia says that before the weather prophet became the groundhog in 18th or 19th century Pennsylvania the animal oracle existed in ancient European folklore as a badger or a bear. The name of our heroine, Ursula, means of course, “bear” and her kindly father Hugh fondly nicknames her “Little Bear.” Her surname, Todd, is an archaic form of the word “fox” which also carries its own layers of symbolism in this novel.

In fact animals figure significantly throughout the story, literally, providentially, and metaphorically. With the long succession of pet dogs, and also kittens, rabbits, foxes, and wolves, Atkinson’s creative use of animals to deepen the symbolism, move the plot along, and add layers of interest is just one of the many reasons I love this novel.

After a number of untimely deaths Ursula slowly develops into a sort of prophet. She does not usually remember the specifics of events but she retains enough emotional memory to sense when something bad is going to happen and what must be done to prevent it. For example, when she is eight years old she comes to know that the family maid, Bridget, must not go the Armistice Day celebration in London because if she did, she would become infected by the deadly influenza virus and bring it into the Todd home. The repeating of events and sculpting of more desirable futures become increasingly complex as Ursula’s life moves through the 1930s and into the second World War.

I like this book on so many levels: the history, the characters, and the realistic portrayal of family life with its complex sibling relationships. I especially love the way Ms. Atkinson weaves the intricate fabric on an overlapping multi-layered plot, all the time allowing Ursula’s character to grow and deepen, and yet always remaining recognizable as the same person, just a person who has learned by experience. It is a brilliant piece of writing.

The novel is also quite thought provoking. Some critics might say that the “Groundhog Day” concept has been overdone. I think not. Ms. Atkinson’s fresh take on the “time repeat” plot makes me wonder if perhaps the single timeline concept is not the one that is overdone. I think literature has hardly begun to tap the possibilities of the multiple time stream.

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