Kate Atkinson is probably best known for her Jackson Brodie “Case Histories” series, a trifecta of British mystery/crime novels, written with wit and enough suspense to satisfy an Anglophile. I liked the first one, got a bit bored with the second, and didn’t bother with the third (kind of like the “Girl Who” series). A certain librarian I know will surely scoff at my judgment.
I was a bit reluctant to try her newest book, “Life After Life.” Yet it seemed I couldn’t get away from people who were recommending this book. And I needed a book for a long flight over the pond. So I Kindled it. (More on why that’s significant later.)
I loved this book. Probably more than any fiction I’ve read all year. The story is not a mystery where a crime is being solved, but it does have a bit of a mysterious tone to it. The main character, Ursula, keeps living her life over and over again. Each time she dies, her story restarts, usually back at the moment of her birth. Circumstances change, and with a moderate case of deja vu, Ursula changes her life each time to avoid the traumatic circumstances that ruined the previous life.
Back to the Future this is not. This is a complex and textured novel about Ursula and her extended family. (Many of the family members left me wishing for a spinoff novel. More Sylvie! More Izzie!) There is a lack of gimmickry, which is remarkable given it’s a book about reincarnation. The reader’s knowledge of these characters deepens each time their lives restart, though that is somewhat counterintuitive. There are some adventures that are humorous and there are some passages that are downright disturbing and difficult to read. Atkinson’s greatest victory with the book is achieving the perfect balance between the two. It’s incredibly enjoyable to read, but it’s also no walk in the park.
All of this character development takes place between World War I and World War II. While she is dazzling you with her characters and their drama, Atkinson is also providing a lifelike portrait of England during the 30s and 40s. In a way, that piece of it reads like historical fiction (maybe it qualifies?). The backdrop is as much a part of this novel as is the reincarnation. We see how the characters react to the notion that war is ending or coming, and how they are affected when it reaches their doorstep.
Perhaps the only gimmick is the storyline where Ursula encounters Hitler and Eva Braun. But it works perfectly. How many times have you heard the ethical question: “What would you do if you were in a bar in 1930-something with Hitler? Would you take the shot?” That question is at the heart of the novel, but it’s not overplayed. It’s like she’s riffing on a familiar hook in a song, yet her virtuosity makes it completely her own.
And speaking of virtuosity, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an author who is so adept at using words with such a flourish. The Kindle was necessary because I was constantly highlighting and defining words and context. It is really a masterpiece.
This book has won a few awards, and I think it is going to have some staying power when people look back on the great novels of this period. Go check it out.
Thanks for reading.