Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was February's book club choice but I only managed to finish it this week, 6 weeks after I started. It's quite a weighty tome stretching to 621 pages and I found myself dipping in and out of it rather than devouring it like a lot of the book club did. This didn't hamper my enjoyment of it much though.
The premise is a simple one yet one I've not read before. What would you do if you could live your life over and over again? What would you change and how would you change it? This is explored from the very first page as we find Sylvia giving birth to our protagonist Ursula, but complications arise and Ursula dies within minutes. Darkness falls around her then she feels snowflakes. Ursula is now being born again, in the same place, to the same mother with the same surroundings, yet this time she survives. Just. Only for her life to end not long after. And repeat. Each time Ursula dies she is reborn on February 11th 1910 to Sylvia whilst a blizzard rages outside. It took a while to fully grasp the writing style but once I understood then it was a treat. We find out not just about Ursula and how her life pans out in several spanning arch's but also that of her family and friends. In one life a child is murdered whilst in another that same child grows up to wed Ursula's brother. There is never a conscious knowing if Ursula remembers her previous lives, but more that she has a feeling about what is right and wrong. Should she take the shortcut to get home or should she walk the long way? One way leads to a grisly confrontation so in the next life she unconsciously decides on the other path.
After the first few reincarnations her live's seem pretty similar and mundane, but then when Ursula turns 16 a shocking act occurs. I felt rocked by this act. I was emotionally sapped. I'd come to really enjoy Ursula's company and it veered away from the importance of focusing on how she's headed towards her deathbed to how she's going to cope with her current life. It was the first time I was happy for the story to start again, as that's the easy way out, rather than dealing with it.

Being born in 1911 meant that Ursula lives and experiences the second world war. Kate Atkinson has found several angles to approach this from. In one life we see Ursula living in Germany and has regular contact with Adolf Hitler himself, mostly in the mid 1930's. The book ask's itself not just 'What would I do differently?' but also 'What would I change?'. Does she pull the trigger on Hitler in the mid 30's to stop the war ever happening? And even if she doesn't in one life, does she in another? I must admit her time in Germany was the least engaging for me as I enjoyed her relationship with her family. Once she returns to the war in another life in London however I think this is the strongest part of the book.
The street's are transformed to rubble and glowing embers, explosions occurring almost hourly. The way Atkinson weaves Ursula into this is majestic. She throws several unlikely personalities together to create a band of amiable figures. Butchers, teachers, musicians all banded together to help clean up the streets along with Ursula. Sometimes Ursula lays down and accepts death and sometimes she's heading straight into a 20 foot mound of twisted metal and fire to see if anyone is alive, but never once do we feel that she's a different character each life. Her decisions in her life affect how she approaches the war. It was a very moving part of the book.

The main gripe with the book club though was the ending. How do you end it? Can she just keep being reincarnated  for ever more? I won't reveal how it does end but I disagreed with most of the club as I thought the ending was suitable and bitter-sweet. It was a long read, a sometime burden if I wasn't enjoying a certain route she had taken, but that route always ended a new path was taken as a new life. I would recommend it to most but perhaps make sure you devour it in a few sittings rather than the two dozen or so I had!
Rating books is a personal thing and I've decided against giving half scores this year. It's better than a 6 but not quite a 7, but I think it probably deserves the 7 for the devastating scenes alone so it's been awarded 7 cushions on the comfometer.

If you want to join the book club just add yourself to the Goodreads club and the Facebook club. Choices are posted at the end of every month to pick from and the winner announced when we chat about the previous book. We chat on Goodreads on the last Sunday of the month at 4pm but also have comments on Facebook too so if you only use one of these (Goodreads is best) then it doesn't matter.

Michael

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