What would you do if you could live your life again, and again? This question lies at the centre of Kate Atkinson’s very successful ‘Life After Life.’ The central premise of the novel is a life resetting after death, multiple times.
Establishing this central conceit makes for some unwieldy chapters with heavy repetition of heroine Ursula’s early hours and days. Yet the characters are so engaging and the storytelling so assured that for the most part you can forgive this, and once Atkinson is confident the reader gets it, the book gets into its stride. Ursula’s life is an upper-middle class family pre-war tale, and Atkinson’s writing is warm, detailed yet pacey.
Still, I had started to resign myself to the format not really going anywhere when, at last, there comes the sniff of an indication that Ursula has some shady consciousness of her … ability? Aha, I thought, sitting up straighter. Now we get all the mind-bending possibilities of playing with time that the concept throws up. Well … not really. Atkinson doesn’t really take it there for the vast majority of the novel, either psychologically or in the action, and it seems a shame that Atkinson neglected an area of such great potential.
Instead, Atkinson explores more and less successful life-paths for Ursula. You’d imagine that by showing later, improved life paths succeeding catastrophic earlier versions, you’d feel that Ursula is learning from her ability to improve and refine her life. But actually, as her consciousness of this capability is so limited, you just get lengths of the book devoted to Ursula’s life going miserably wrong. There are rapist murderers lurking in lanes, predatory teachers, domestic violence in marriage, deaths of loved ones… even when it all goes right, there’s little in the way of lifelong and positive relationships. Add this to the multiple times that we watch Ursula die and it’s all a bit bleak.
Eventually, Ursula does take ownership of her unique ability – but the end twist is one part satisfying to two parts expected and pat. So back to the conversational cliche – what would you do with this sort of ability? The cliched answers are that you’d play the lottery a lot, or you’d kill Hitler. Well, here, it’s Hitler. The background making this twist credible has been worked in earlier, but in a forced way which doesn’t ring true in the context of the novel. Personally, this ending underlined the shortcomings of a novel which failed to make the most of its intriguing central idea.
Yet. While I didn’t love the premise, there’s no arguing with the fluid readability of Atkinson’s narrative. It’s probably popular rather than literary fiction, but it’s intelligent, well-weighted, and keeps the pages turning. Her depiction of the war years, a well-trodden path, is fresh and moving. So while I don’t share the much-expressed surprise that the book didn’t get onto last year’s Booker long-list, I’ll be examining Atkinson’s back catalogue for holiday reading.