Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life after lifeThis month my book club read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – a book that has gotten a lot of praise (it was a 2013 Goodreads Choice Winner) and stimulated a lot of complex conversations among my fellow book clubbers. No surprise considering what a complex book it was. I talked about this book a little in my twitterature roundup but I felt it was deserving of a more thorough review.

Here’s my twitter style review for those short on time:

Intense, complicated; fantastic and awful; hopeful and despondent. If you could go back and relive your life again what things would you do differently? It oscillates between being a story about all the ways you can die and  all the ways you can survive.

#notquitereincarnation #lotsoffoxes #letskillhitler #warsucks

And now for something more fleshed out (warning: some minor spoilers ahead):

This story begins with the birth of the book’s main character Ursula Todd – it also begins with her death. Then she’s born again. Then she dies again. This goes on for, well, the entire book. Confused yet? At first I thought this was a book about reincarnation and it’s in a similar vein to be sure except that rather than coming back as someone or something else, Ursula simply begins her life over again as though it were a vhs tape beind rewound over and over again. Each time she lives just a tiny bit longer, subconsciously changing her actions to save her life and sometimes the lives of the people around her. As this continues she becomes more cognizant of what is going on (to the point that she is sent to therapy) and becomes more and more motivated in each “life” to get things “right” – whatever that means.

If you could go back and relive your life again, what would you do differently? Would you want to go back and relive everything over again so that you could change the past and right a wrong? What things would change because of your differing actions? This is the basic backbone of the story but it is so much more, as if that weren’t enough. It’s a story of family and motherhood. It’s a story of war – it is very much a story of war and not for the faint of heart, I would add. The scenes described in the book are often quite gruesome and tragic and for a long time it seems as though nobody is safe and nothing is sacred.

The first half of this book was difficult to read. I had to pick it up each night and tip toe through it a bit at a time, often putting it down early and reading something light afterwards so that it wouldn’t be the last thing on my mind before falling asleep. As such, it took me awhile to finish it and many times I thought about stopping all together, but because of the book club discussion I soldiered on and then gradually Ursula began to live longer, to win more often and to become a lot more proactive and sassy than her earlier wallflower victimized character. These things all made the book suddenly come alive for me and I read the second half much faster than the first.

I found a rhythm within the second half of the book and found myself appreciating it much more – being able to enjoy the beauty of Atkinson’s writing and the complexities of the characters and the “what if” of it all. Once I hit that stride, it was smooth sailing, which is not to say that the subject matter got any less gruesome so much as that I finally felt myself becoming desensitized to it enough to enjoy the book for what it was. In the end, I found that I really enjoyed the book – as much as you can enjoy a book in which such awful stuff is happening all the time. I’m so glad that I gave the book a chance and stuck with it long enough to want to keep going. This is one of the reasons that I love my book club – it never ceases to push me outside of my literary comfort zones!

Did you read Life After Life? What did you think of it?

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