Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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Wonderful! Even better than her Jackson Brodie private investigator ‘frilogy’ (four books, see), which I had not thought possible. It’s always nice when a favourite author ups her game without losing my interest.

Tracking important moments in the rewound-and-lived-again lives of Ursula (usually moments when a circumstance or choice results in her untimely demise, approximately every five years or so), the story is of all the lives she could have lived. It’s as different as it could be from a ‘choose your own adventure’ storybook, given that those imply a degree of control and conscious choice over what might happen next, whereas Ursula’s fates seem merely to be adjacent frills in the everfolded Multiverse, each equally likely. Some reviewers feel that the book shows how she learns from previous truncated lives to make a final difference (spoiler: possibly assassinating Hitler!) in her last life. But although some of the Ursulas do seem to retain a dim awareness of previous lives, I do not think the book is an exercise in ‘getting it right’ by reliving moments of choice. I think it underscores the precious uniqueness of each life, the potential of each path not yet walked down, and the horrible randomness of the deaths depicted.

Some of the Ursulas are happier than others, some learn more skills or live in different places. Some marry, some have a child, one is murdered by her husband. But somehow, thanks entirely to the masterful storytelling (I imagine the author required an enormous mindmap detailing the different paths of Ursula’s many lives, enabling her to drop in references to the distinguishing characteristics of each life) and some unchanging elements in all the Ursula’s lives (such as her calm, kind father and sister), it all hangs together and Ursula’s personality remains recognisable throughout.

Extra interesting for me was that Ursula was born in almost the same year (1910) that my grandmother was, so some of her lives span both world wars. Those of Ursula’s lives ended by the Blitz are particularly fascinating and moving. How lucky we are to live in times of peace. There is a surreal episode set in Germany, where Ursula is befriended by Eva Braun (a bit contrived, that). Ursula’s German lives seem designed to build a more compassionate understanding in the reader of the Germany in which Hitler rose to power. And her early lives depict a serene, privileged pre-war countryside lifestyle presumably now gone forever.

I intend to reread as soon as I can bear to.

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