I received a free ebook copy of this book from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released on April 2, 2013.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is an intriguing thought experiment. As the novel goes on, we see the main character, Ursula Todd, living her life over and over again. When accident, disease, or misadventure cause her death, we go right back to the snowy night in 1910 when Ursula was born. As her life spins out again, small changes lead her down different paths. It seemed as though Ursula lived every possible life she could have by the time you get to the end of the book (though it’s not the end of Ursula’s lives).
Ursula, however, doesn’t seem to remember the lessons of her previous lives very clearly. As a child, she has episodes of deja vu. Sometimes she will do things, but not be able to explain why she did them. We know why, for example, she pushes the maid down the stairs. If the maid breaks her arm, she might not catch the flu of 1918 and bring it home with her. And if she doesn’t bring the flu home, Ursula and her brother won’t die. If she knees the very aggressive boy in the crotch, he won’t be able to rape her and get her pregnant. If she didn’t get pregnant, she wouldn’t have become so depressed that she married a man who turned out to be a violently jealous and controlling man. In some of her lives, Ursula is unhappy. In others, she has a good life until World War II turns everyone’s life upside down.
It is a little frustrating that Ursula doesn’t have clearer memories. It would have been interesting to see her trying to right the wrongs of history. But that’s not what I think this book is really about. Once I realized it what this book wasn’t, I started to see it as a very in-depth exploration of “What if?” As I read, I couldn’t help but mull over the questions of should and meant to be. Do such things exist? It’s easy to look at the last 100 years and think that everything that has happened was meant to happen that way, because that’s what we know. Anything else would just feel weird. At least until Atkinson shows you the error of your thoughts by showing you how little decisions can have big ramifications.