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What if you could live again and again, until you got it right? On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war. Does Ursula's apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can - will she? Darkly comic, startlingly poignant, and utterly original - this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best. Â
About The Author Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Book of the Year award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and has been an internationally bestselling author ever since. Her most recent books include Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?, and Started Early, Took My Dog. Atkinson lives in Edinburgh.
Reviews The New York Times Book Review - Francine Prose
One of the things I like most about British mystery novels (including Kate Atkinson's) is the combination of good writing and a certain theatrical bravado. Their authors enjoy showing us how expertly they can construct a puzzle, then solve it: the literary equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Life After Life inspires a similar sort of admiration, as Atkinson sharpens our awareness of the apparently limitless choices and decisions that a novelist must make on every page, and of what is gained and lost when the consequences of these choices are, like life, singular and final. The New York Times - Janet Maslin
â€¦[Atkinson's] very bestâ€¦a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author's fully untethered imaginationâ€¦[it] is full of mind games, but they are purposeful rather than emptily playfulâ €¦Even without the sleight of hand, Life After Life would be an exceptionally captivating book with an engaging cast of characters. Publishers Weekly
Atkinson's new novel (after Started Early, Took My Dog) opens twice: first in Germany in 1930 with an English woman taking a shot at Hitler, then in England in 1910 when a baby arrives, stillborn. And then it opens again: still in 1910, still in England, but this time the baby lives. That baby is Ursula Todd, and as she grows up, she dies and lives repeatedly. Watching Atkinson bring Ursula into the world yet again initially feels like a not terribly interesting trick: we know authors have the power of life and death. But as Ursula and the century age, and war and epidemic and war come again, the fact of death, of "darkness," as Atkinson calls it, falling on cities and people-now Ursula, now someone else, now Ursula again-turns out to be central. At heart this is a war story; half the book is given over to Ursula's activities during WWII, and in its focus on the women and civilians usually overlooked or downplayed, it gives the Blitz its full measure of terror. By the end, which takes us back to that moment in 1930 and beyond, it's clear that Atkinson's not playing tricks; rather, through Ursula's many lives and the accretion of what T.S. Eliot called "visions and revisions," she's found an inventive way to make both the war's toll and the pull of alternate history, of darkness avoided or diminished, fresh. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management. (Apr. 2) Gillian Flynn
PRAISE FOR LIFE AFTER LIFE:
"Kate Atkinson is a marvel. There aren't enough breathless adjectives to describe Life After Life: Dazzling, witty, moving, joyful, mournful, profound. Wildly inventive, deeply felt. Hilarious. Humane. Simply put: It's one of the best novels I've read this century." J. Courtney Sullivan
"Life After Life is a masterpiece about how even the smallest choices can sometimes change the course of history. It's wise, bittersweet, funny, and unlike anything else you've ever read. Kate Atkinson is one of my all-time favorite novelists, and I believe this is her best book yet." Kirkus Reviews
If you could travel back in time and kill Hitler, would you? Of course you would. Atkinson's (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson
isn't being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist's encounter with der FÃ¼hrer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and--in this instance--our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion. In one moment, for example, the conversation turns to a child who has died; reminds Ursula, our heroine, "Your daughter....She fell in the fire," an event the child's poor mother gainsays: " â€˜I only ever had Derek,' she concluded firmly." Ah, but there's the rub with alternate realities, all of which, Atkinson suggests, can be folded up into the same life so that all are equally real. Besides, it affords several opportunities to do old Adolf in, what with his "funny little flap of the hand backward so that he looked as if he were cupping his ear to hear them better" and all. Provocative, entertaining and beautifully written. It's not quite the tour de force that her Case Histories (2004) was, but this latest affords the happy sight of seeing Atkinson stretch out into speculative territory again. The Barnes & Noble Review
She's taken it up a notch, was my first (and nearly my last) critical thought, as the pages of Life After Life closed over my head. Kate Atkinson's previous book, 2011's Started Early, Took My Dog, was the fourth to feature her muddled, rueful, violent and wholly sympathetic private eye/justice dispenser Jackson Brodie, and beneath its many enjoyments I (stringent superfan) thought I had detected a certain hastiness or slackening of style. Atkinson is a captivating writer - I once consumed, or was consumed by, three of her novels in as many days, as if the author and I were having a sort of dirty weekend - but here was Started Early, Took My Dog giving me those slight, perhaps unfair, sensations of jaundiced been-here-before-ness... Not so the enormous and dreamlike Life After Life - although been-here-before-ness is the book's theme. This is Atkinson fully empowered by her talent and hitting a new level of imaginative exhilaration. There's a giddy intensity to the book, the thin-air atmosphere of an artistic high. Ursula Todd is born on a winter's night in England in 1910: born blue, born into death, umbilically strangled. "Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird." The doctor who should have been attending the birth, whose intervention would have saved her, is stuck in a snowdrift somewhere. Baby dies. The End. Except: not. Time flickers, the universe double-takes, and on the same night Ursula is born again, surviving now thanks to the surgical scissors of the pedantic Dr. Fellowes. ("I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time. Literally.") Four years later, during a summer in Cornwall, Ursula toddles into the sea with her big sister Pamela. Death - in the form of a big wave - snatches her off her feet. "No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky." Back to the beginning: parturition on a winter's night, the tiny silver hare dangling from the hood of her pram... When the wave takes her this time, a gentle bystander (happily present on the beach with easel and watercolors) ruins his boots by wading in and scooping her to safety. But four years after that, in November 1918, she is carried off by influenza. "One breath, that was all she needed, but it wouldn't come." Outliving these layered suffocations one by one, starting over and starting over, Ursula begins to retain impressions of her former lives. It's not Orlando-esque reincarnation, nor is it the black joke of Groundhog Day, but some kind experiment in possibility. In one life a bundling seduction turns into a rape, and then an abortion; in another life the same seducer-rapist is cheerfully rebuffed, leaving no mark on the story. The lethal dose of influenza, meanwhile, was delivered by Bridget, a servant, who picked it up while celebrating the Armistice in London. So, on her next goaround, eight-year-old Ursula contrives to prevent Bridget from going to London at all. How? Why, by pushing her downstairs. Her worried family take her to a psychiatrist, a tolerant, and pipe-chewing New Ager by the name of Dr. Kellet. He tells her about Nietzsche and the ouroboros. But he doesn't solve the mystery, and nor does Ursula - she simply lives it, with a little more premonitory know-how each time. To the point where, having observed the currents of history as they flow (have flowed, will flow) around her and her family, she comes to the conclusion that it might be quite a good idea to kill Adolf Hitler. There. Now you have to read it. Ursula is born into Edwardian privilege, her spiral of lives embedded in a world of cooks and groundskeepers and
runaway aunts and suitable and unsuitable men and Lawrentian yearnings for farmhands, etc. - all of which means that many readers of Life After Life will unavoidably be experiencing it through the interpretive grid of PBS's absurd Downton Abbey. This may not be an entirely bad thing: smatteringly and soapily educated by Downton as to the issues facing British society between (and during) the wars, we can here deepen our understanding, courtesy of Atkinson's gift for historical mood and her eerie deftness at characterization. Hugh Todd, for example, Ursula's father, is a kind, dutiful and self-effacing Englishman - a complete nonentity, in other words, who nevertheless flares fully into personhood at the tip of Atkinson's pen. A line here, a look there, a small scene from his marriage: the heart of this long- suffering man seems to irradiate the narrative. The Atkinson style is a marvel: loose, open, visceral, idiomatic, full of foreshadowings and reverse echoes, and with a steady pulse of poetry. Her plotting may be as zany and compacted as an episode of Doctor Who, but she writes like someone to whom Palgrave's Golden Treasury has been mother's milk. Poetry in quotation (Keats, Donne) spangles Life After Life, and from time to time the book actually steps inside a poem - T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land spectrally envelops the text at two points. First, as a 1923-model Ursula and her aunt Izzie encounter a march of unemployed men on Westminster Bridge ("A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many...") and then again three years later, as a pregnant Ursula - pregnant with the rapist's child - contemplates throwing herself into the Thames and drifting "gently on the tide, past Wapping and Rotherhithe and Greenwich and on to Tilbury and out to sea." ("Down Greenwich Reach past the Isle of Dogs," croons the bard Eliot, in his mourning song.) I make this point not, I hope, to show that I know my Eliot but to show that Kate Atkinson, popular novelist, is sitting somehow at the wellsprings of the English imagination. James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press), and a correspondent for The Atlantic. Reviewer: James Parker
Kate Atkinson has written a book with a very interesting premise. Ursula Todd dies and always comes back to try again. From 1910 through WWII. Offers many incites into history. I recommend this book !
I tend to be skeptical of books that have a big fuss made about them, finding them either too “artsy” or too “James Patterson-ish” -not literary at all. But Life After Life far exceeded my expectations. It was well-written with a great sense of atmosphere, a believable but likeable protagonist, and a great sense of time and place. The main character, Sophie, is born again and again throughout the novel on a chilly evening in February 1910. Each lifetime a circumstance changes sending Ursula and her family’s future on a different trajectory. What if we get to live again and again until we get our life right? Highly recommended for fans of historical and literary fiction!
All the reviews by readers have echoed what most reviews of this book said--the over-used phrases "the best book of the year" and "it's a new classic" are actually what is required to describe this book. "Life After Life" takes a concept that, on first description, seems better suited to a playful South American novelist. Instead, Atkinson has used a bit of magical realism to illustrate how women lived between and during the wars. The history is fascinating, but there is plenty of whimsy in it. Ursula Todd in all her possible lives is a great character. Her family is a source of amusement and as a child, she is haunted by the vision of lives she's already lead. And the reader, having been there with her, has the benefit of a chuckle at her confusion.)
As the book goes on, the lives last longer and Ursula, with more of her memory left intact "life after life", is faced with a decision that hinges on a philosophical choice, not unexpected, perhaps, for a woman who turns out to be as tough as flint and so well-read--she loves John Donne and contemplates at one point, that of all the male poets in the English pantheon, he would be her choice for husband. Whose life are you capable of saving? Would you dare save your own?
And even if you don’t find yourself asking such questions by the end of the novel, you will still have enjoyed Atkinson’s multiple journeys.
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Published on Jun 15, 2013