Life After Life
Atkinson’s latest novel has garnered considerable attention and acclaim, and it’s no wonder: its high-concept premise—involving a character who lives, dies, and then lives again, repeatedly—is as provocative as it is head-scratching. But beneath the fantastical construct, Atkinson has fashioned a delicate, deeply felt latticework of life and all its infinite possibilities.
That said, Life After Life tests how much faith a reader is willing to put in an author. The novel’s first third is arduous: the main character, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910 and dies in fits and starts repeatedly during childhood. But Atkinson—the author of many novels including Case Histories, one of the most acclaimed in recent years—deserves your trust. As the fragility of life at its infancy gives way to adolescence and adulthood, the novel starts to spin off in interesting and often surprising ways.
This isn’t Cloud Atlas transplanted to historical England—Ursula is not reincarnated. Instead, as she dies in one reality, she slowly develops inclinations to avoid repeating her mistakes in another. In one reality, she and her sister drown in the ocean as children. But in another, she survives the accident. Later, she marries a violent man who beats her. In another, she marries a German—and becomes closely involved with Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler. Both World Wars loom largely in the background, and no timeline of Ursula’s is unaffected by their carnage.
Through these parallel timelines, Atkinson reveals a ponderous meditation on the sheer magnetism of life; on how the choices we make, or don’t make, combine with circumstances outside of our control (like, most notably, war) to define our lives. While the premise will undoubtedly enthrall some and leave others cold, Life After Life is not only a triumph of form and structure—it’s also one of feeling and thought. There won’t be a more original book this year. Or one more debated about.