Life After Life
Reviewed by Amy Gentry, Fri., May 17, 2013
Life After Lifeby Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur, 544 pp., $27.99
If reading about snow cools you off, you might want to tote Kate Atkinson's Life After Life along with you to Barton Springs this summer. One particular snowy night in 1910 recurs so many times throughout the novel I lost count: the night Ursula Todd is born. Every time Ursula dies, her life starts over again on that same winter evening. And it happens a lot; the first half of the book, with its parade of little Ursula's grim demises, occasionally resembles an Edward Gorey book.
Atkinson's gift as a novelist is to treat her interesting narrative structures with a light but steady hand, as thought experiments rather than heavy-handed philosophical treatises or clever gimmicks. Atkinson's wry, quasi-Austenian narrator is not unaware of the humor of the situation – as when, after 20-some-odd resurrections, she substitutes "etc." for the lyrical passage that typically brings Ursula's soul back to that fateful snowy night – but the premise has more serious implications. Following vague impulses and déjà vu, Ursula survives for longer and longer spans by avoiding certain fatal mishaps. As in life, each solved problem propels her into the arms of another, and it is oddly transfixing to watch her try to navigate certain particularly knotty junctures, like watching someone getting past the hardest level of a video game.
However, as Ursula reaches adulthood, the bloody events of the 20th century begin to pose problems that go far beyond her individual life, and what used to read as a sly joke is now a very, very grim one. During an extended section set in London during the Blitz, a book about the randomness and fragility of life becomes a book about the scale and senselessness of death. Even when Ursula seems ready to use her powers to change capital-H history, the final wish-fulfillment fantasy in this engaging novel is bittersweet.