Thursday, January 15, 2015

book review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The backstory: Life After Life was shortlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction (now Bailey's Prize) and was a 2013 New York Times Notable Book and named to its Top Ten of 2013.

The basics: Life After Life is the story of a young British woman born in 1910. Throughout the novel she dies many times, and each possible life serves as an exploration of how small moments have enormous impact on our lives and deaths.

My thoughts: The opening scene of this novel is incredible: twenty-year-old Ursula kills Hitler in 1930 in a German cafe. She is promptly killed. Then the action goes back to Ursula's birth. In the next few scenes, various iterations of the doctor getting stuck in a snowstorm and making it to her birth or not play out, as do various causes of her death. Atkinson plays with life and death somewhat whimsically here, which I appreciated: "I hear the baby nearly died,” Mrs. Glover said. “Well…” Sylvie said. Such a fine line between living and dying."

The early part of this novel features many short scenes, which certainly introduce the concept of the novel, but I didn't find myself invested in Ursula as a person, even with her assassination of Hitler, until her teen years. I found the childhood years lacked momentum, but Atkinson's writing was strong, and I was enjoying the premise of the novel so immensely.

By the half-way point, I contemplated abandoning this novel. Despite its strong moments, I too often was bored. And this novel is loooong. I persevered, but the reading experience was somewhat maddening. At several points, I found find myself engrossed in the narrative only to have it switch paths. While I love the idea of this novel, I don't find it particularly new. Many novels tackle the idea, albeit without looking at actual different lives. The importance of little moments is a fascination of mine, and I often contemplate the different possible paths my life could have taken and still could take (admittedly, most of these do not involve my own death but rather the impact of the death of others, moves, and other life changes, small or large.)

Favorite passages:  "What a world of difference there was between dying and nearly dying. One’s whole life, in fact. Ursula felt she had no use for the life she had been saved for."

"Ursula’s own chance at ordinariness seemed lost forever."

The verdict: I loved the idea of this book so much more than its execution. Undeniably, there are moments of brilliance, but they make the other moments that much more frustrating. While perhaps intentionally so, some of Ursula's lives are unbelievably boring. Despite the writing and premise, I found this novel overly long and not nearly as good as a whole as some of its parts are.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Life After Life from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Kate Atkinson's website and like her on Facebook

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  1. I've hear such opposite thoughts on this one that I've never brought myself to actually try it,e specially because of its size. I think I'll first go through her shorter and more popular books before investing in this one.

    1. I'm definitely glad I read it, as I finally have my own opinion on it. I do still want to read her Jackson Brodie novels. I will skip her newest, which will be a companion piece to this one;-)

  2. Agreed, The idea more than its execution. I got a little bored with it halfway through.

    1. It was about half-way through that I got bored too. And there was still a lot of book left!

  3. This sounds very strangely like "The End of Days" by Jenny Erpenbeck, which is based on a very similar premise: the main character also dies at different stages of her life, once as a baby, then again as a young woman, etc. I think The End of Days is shorter than Life after Life, but the execution issue is also there. It's clever but it didn't really convince me. I don't think I'd be a fan of Life after Life either ;)

  4. I'm reading this now! I agree with your assessment--I think Atkinson could have shortened a lot.

  5. I absolutely loved this book and wasn't bored once. I hadn't read a book like it before, so it was a new concept to me.

  6. I'm 100% with you on this one. I love her other books and had such high hopes for this one. I was just so disappointed.

  7. I felt very similarly to you when I read this book. I wanted to throw it at times. Atkinson made me think, but she also pissed me off.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!