Book Review: Summer Fiction, Summer Not

Kate Atkinson

Summer Fiction, Summer Not

Life After Life

by 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.

  • Summer Fiction, Summer Not

    Six new releases to kick back with this season
  • The Science Delusion

    White takes aim at the bold targets of Richard Dawkins and Jonah Lehrer and their ilk

    The Son

    Imagine an aerial view of Texas, in which hidden elements of a huge, breathtaking landscape are suddenly made clear


    Follow along with a group of kids maturing along with the tech and gaming industry of the Eighties and Nineties
  • And the Mountains Echoed

    Khaled Hosseini's third novel resonates to the core

    Red Moon

    Benjamin Percy presents a heady mix of political allegory and urban fantasy
More Life After Life
Three Cheers for Reading
Three Cheers for Reading
Our favorite books of 2013

Kimberley Jones, Jan. 3, 2014

More Book Reviews
Local Flavor
Paleo French Cuisine
The 10,000-year-old diet gets a French makeover

Anna Toon, June 14, 2013

Summer Fiction
The Age of Miracles
Apocalypse Wow: 'The Age of Miracles'

Kimberley Jones, June 15, 2012

More by Amy Gentry
The Good Eye: The Pulse
The Good Eye: The Pulse
The Good Eye says goodbye

April 3, 2015

The Good Eye: Allies in the Industry
The Good Eye: Allies in the Industry
Giving Austin actresses a seat at the table

March 27, 2015


Life After Life, Kate Atkinson, resurrection, summer fun, Summer Fun 2013

AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)