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Book cover for Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'  — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
At one point in Kate Atkinson's marvelously embroidered novel, main character Ursula Todd ponders reincarnation and decides that she'd like to come back as a tree. A great tree swaying in the breeze. And of course, she is—a tree whose trunk is rooted in in the early hours of a snowy day in 1910, whose branches reach out through choices and coincidence, and whose leaves brush a future that spreads in all directions.

Life After Life is based around an idea that's older than the classic idea of reincarnation, an idea known as "eternal return," in which we all play out our lives again, and again, and again in an never-ending loop. However, unlike the traditional view of this ancient idea, Usula's life doesn't proceed in eternal lockstep. She's swayed by the breezes both of external forces and, increasingly, of her own conscious decisions, turning each iteration of her life into a new edition that can follow closely along an established branch, or dart off wildly in a new direction.

At first this looping narrative, filled with restarts, reworkings, do-overs and flashbacks, can seem something of a gimmick, but only follow Ursula far enough to get through her childhood and it becomes it's own thing. A fractal novel. A biography of a quantum life created as much from variation as theme. Give it far enough, and it reveals itself for what it really is: a masterwork.

What might seem from casual description to be a difficult read is turned into a joy by Atkinson's skill with characters. Everyone — everyone — in this decade-spanning saga is given a character utterly distinctive and utterly believable. That's an admirable feat on it's own, but what raises it to an award-worthy performance is how each of these characters is given their own chance to grow and develop. Ursula's mother, Sylvie, becomes both more possessed, but also more bitter. Her father, Hugh, grows increasingly more generous and less concerned with propriety. Ursula becomes more and more like both of them, impossible as that seems. Her siblings, Aunt Izzy, Bridget, Mrs. Glover, Fred Smith the butcher's boy turned train engineer turned fire fighter in the midst of a burning London... all of them drawn out with both an economy and with a refusal to fall to stereotype. We see these characters over a span of forty years, not just once but multiple times, and see them respond when life's coin flip provides good fortune, and when it strikes as hard as the death of a child. We see dozens of variations, but never doubt their core.

The book is also buoyed by humor. Sylvie's education, which is mostly limited to being exceptionally well-read, allows her to continuously drop little verbal bombshells and is good for a quote on any occassion. Footloose Izzy never met a stiff shirt that didn't need poking. Ursula's internal thoughts are rarely as dry as her solid, "needs must" demeanor. Even the guileless maid Bridget and stalwart sister Pamela are good for a verbal elbow now and then, especially when aimed at eldest-brother Maurice, who remains a sot in every life.

The many lives of Ursula, as presented to the reader, include those that end tragically soon after her birth, and those that stretch into a comfortable retirement. We see her in awful circumstances, married to a bulling, abusive husband or freezing and hungry in post-war scarcity. The level of pain to which she is subjected in the worst of these, and the relative passivity of the character in some early situations, make both the reader (and Ursula) wish for "darkness to fall" so that things can begin again with a less bitter outcome.

Both the humor and the characters come into their own as the novel plunges into the heart of Ursula's adulthood and the world plunges into war. It's really in the war narrative, those years where Ursula endures tragedy on every scale, where the book rises into rarified air in it's description of lives lived against bloody sacrifice and staggering acts of everyday heroism. As it does in other parts of the book, Ursula's life here revisits branching points and banks and weaves through a sea of choices. Some of these (Argyle Road) combine moments both banal and horrible. So horrible that it may make you rethink the experience of those who lived through World War II. How did the "greatest generation" keep themselves from simply becoming a generation gone screaming mad? Lots of gumption and gallons of hot tea.

Ursula seems unique at first, not because her life is repeating, but because more than anyone else, she seems aware of this repetition and is able to put her foreknowledge  to use, even when it is mostly limited to moments of foreboding. However, as the novel progresses, even this distinction is... less distinct. It's clear that at least some of the other characters are bearing with them experiences and thoughts that overlap from one existence to the next. Even the previously unexplained changes in some of their outlooks become more understandable if they are also suffering pangs over not just what has happened, but what is coming.

The genius of the novel is such that it can deal with that hoariest of time travel chestnuts -- let's kill Hitler! -- not just once, but twice, and come off with that event only informing the structure of the book and the essential nature of Ursula's ever-ending but eternal life.

In the end, despite all that we've seen, it's clear that this is only a fragment; a few twigs on that vast tree. Who is the man Ursula sees with Sylvie when she is thirteen? What is Nancy Shawcross' mysterious job during the war, and is it related to the man who tries to hand Ursula a business card on the train? What did Anne, the girl from the air department, want to tell her? Can poor Angela be saved? We don't know. Not in this life, anyway. Maybe somewhere out there is another version of this book, one that answers these questions.

On every level -- the sharply sketched characters, humor both biting and gentle, an amazing eye for historical detail, the deft handling of a narrative that is anything but linear -- this is a book that, like it's main character, will live on.

And did I mention it was simply beautifully written? Next time, I'll start with that.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Read the book, and listen to it as well (0+ / 0-)

    This is one of those cases when the audiobook is as wonderful to listen to as the book is to read.  Fenella Woolgar (who American audiences will probably know best as Min on the BBC series Jekyll and Agatha Christie on Dr. Who) does an amazing job of handling all those voices. She even "ages" the voices appropriately as we revisit the characters across the decades.

    If you're at all a fan of audiobooks, put this one on your Christmas list. It'll turn that long drive to Grandma's into a pleasure, and perhaps leave you thinking of your own equivalent of that stream running through the bluebell wood.

  •  Atkinson is my favoite modern author. (3+ / 0-)

    She has never disappointed. Thanks for this diary.

    Sounds quite different from her other works, but I love speculative & imaginative fiction, and I love her way with characters and storytelling. Can't wait to read it.

  •  Definitely at the top of my reading list... (3+ / 0-)

    I've heard a lot about this and everyone I know who has read it has loved it.

    Kind of goes with the time travel theme about which I have read a couple of books this year:

    11/22/63 by Stephen King - traveling back in time to try to change events

    The Curiosity by Stephen Kiernan - traveling from the past to the present via cryogenics

    What it is, is up to us. ~ Howard Rheingold

    by madame defarge on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 04:18:29 PM PST

  •  I had never heard of this author, so I (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rl en france

    Greatly appreciate your elegant review of a book that certainly seems worth reading.

  •  Great review, thanks. nt (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rl en france

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 04:25:21 PM PST

  •  On Xmas my sister in law (5+ / 0-)

    was telling me that Life after Life was the best book she read in 2013, and she's a prolific reader. Just ordered it on my kindle and your wonderful review really wet my appetite to get to it, but must finish the one I'm reading...which is Steven King's Joyland, which is very good. Haven't read one of his books in years and I'm quite enjoying this one. It made several best books of 2013 lists, and is a bit of a return to his earlier books, more focused and character driven.

    "A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues." Theodore Roosevelt.

    by StellaRay on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 04:30:56 PM PST

    •  I loved Joyland (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      StellaRay, rl en france

      I think King's short fiction is his best, but that may just be because really long books intimidate me these days. Still, The Green Mile and  Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption were great books. King really has the wistful recollection thing down, and when he combines it with creepy situations it's even more fun. One of these days I have to read The Body. We recently watched Stand by Me for the first time and it was such a good film, I can't believe the book isn't even better.

      •  Love it when someone (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        rl en france, bdizz

        wants to talk about King. I was introduced to him eons ago, by a writer I knew who insisted, despite the fact that I had and still have zip interest in the horror genre, that I would love "Salem's Lot" and this "new" author he had discovered. He said doesn't matter about his genre, it's his voice you'll love.

        I was dubious, but took the book home and surprised myself by staying up late into the night reading it, couple of nights, till I finished it. Then for years, I read everything he wrote.

        There came a time when he should have been better edited, lost his focus and value for character, which made his early books so good, imo. I too loved his short stories...the two you mentioned were published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, after he had already achieved fame. Of course the cat was out of the bag soon, and by the time I read them, I knew it was King.

        He also wrote one of the best books on writing I've ever read, called in fact, "On Writing." And "Stand by me" is imo, one of the quintessential coming of age stories and movies in contemporary America.

        He has another new one out, "Doctor Sleep," which is a sort of sequel to "The Shining," following up on the son from the original book as an adult. It's gotten pretty good reviews and I'm curious. On my list.

        Nothing makes me happier than having a big fat juicy list of books waiting to read!

        "A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues." Theodore Roosevelt.

        by StellaRay on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 08:45:09 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I know I read Salem's Lot (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Man, what a scary book. But I've honestly haven't read much more of his stuff--Doctor Sleep and Under the Dome are such doorstops! Sorry, I think that's my own word for a really long book.  Seriously, I know they're good, my friends and colleagues tell me they're good, and I should try to tackle them, and one of these days I will. Thank heavens for his shorter works.

          I remember when those Bachman books came out back in.....I think the 80's. Offhand I can't remember how long he was able to keep his real name a secret on those, but it would have lasted about five minutes these days.

  •  Already had it on my wish list (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, rl en france

    Your review confirms it needs to stay there.

    “Texas is a so-called red state, but you’ve got 10 million Democrats here in Texas. And …, there are a whole lot of people here in Texas who need us, and who need us to fight for them.” President Obama

    by Catte Nappe on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 04:34:05 PM PST

  •  Best book I've read this year (3+ / 0-)

    And if you are into social history, a great contemplation on the importance of human agency in history.

    Fox's Brian Kilmeade on Starbucks' decision to ban guns in stores: "Real simple - if you have a gun, go to Dunkin Donuts."

    by NCJan on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 04:50:01 PM PST

  •  I've read Nietzsche's notion of "Eternal Return".. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rl en france

    ...and never agreed with his conclusion that  'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more'. He seems to see it as mere repetition.

    I've always thought that each "return", each iteration, would include innumerable variations based on the chance circumstances we encounter in our daily lives.

    From this review it seems as though Kate Atkinson agrees with me and has given the concept a great conception as fiction.

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention - I'll seek it out soon.

    Existence always was and always will be.

    by Seattle Mark on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 05:53:57 PM PST

  •  I've got to read this book (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rl en france

    Or rather listen to it. There have been so many glowing reviews and recommendations......I loved her Case Histories. The story was pretty grim, but some of the characters were nothing short of hilarious. I love listening to books, and I've "read" so many things I would have never otherwise picked up. I figure I've got to drive around anyway, it costs me nothing, so to speak, to listen to something I'd be reluctant to put aside my time to read. Can't quite explain it!

  •  I LOVED this book (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, rl en france

    Read it earlier this year and it's still haunting me.

    Thanks for the great review, Mark!

  •  I adored this book! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rl en france

    My favorite of 2013, but then I love everything she's written starting with "Case Histories"

    But Life after life is amazing!

    They also serve, who only stand and wait. ~ John Milton On His Blindness

    by vcmvo2 on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 08:29:14 PM PST

  •  Thank you very much for the in depth review. (0+ / 0-)

    I really like Atkinson's work but this story line alone is most intriguing. On my list to buy.  And my best to you for the year to come.

  •  Perfect timing! (0+ / 0-)

    Just finished a long period of time studying for a certification exam. There was no time to pleasure read until now.

    Can't wait to dive in to reading again!

    This diary and all the comments have given me so many suggestions for my 2014 reading list.

    Thanks to all and Happy New Year!!

    I am an Elizabeth Warren Democrat

    by karma13612 on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 05:38:48 AM PST

  •  Thanks, added to my reading list (0+ / 0-)

    Based on the review, it seems superficially a bit similar to one of my favorite novels, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. That book also has main characters reincarnated and explores not just their personal development through the ages but also the changing of the world around them. The basic premise is that the Black Death virtually wiped out Europe so in this alternate history, other races and cultures flourish, dominate, and decline on the world stage, absent the overwhelming influence of European civilizations.

  •  Thanks (0+ / 0-)

    Great review.  This was one of the best two or three books I read this year.  The book is compelling and, as you note, very funny at times.   It is also beautifully written.  I was awed that Atkinson could keep all the story lines straight!  A virtuoso performance.   I liked it so much that I got the audio book as an Xmas gift for my wife.  Very highly recommended.

  •  just ordered the audiobook... (0+ / 0-)

    ...based on your recommendation! Thanks!

    As for accordions, I hope, wherever he is, he has something better to do with his time. - Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

    by Miss Bianca on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 03:17:34 PM PST

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