Life after Life is the story of a girl, Ursula, who’s born just before World War I and lives through World War II, who experiences so much that it can hardly fit into one life. In fact, it doesn’t fit into one life. You see, Ursula has this little quirk: She dies pretty often. And then she’s reborn, always at the same time, always into the same family. So she lives her life over and over, sometimes dying early (in childbirth, in a childhood drowning accident), and sometimes very late. She picks up some things from her past lives, but she doesn’t remember them clearly. You could say, as her mother does, that she lives in a constant state of deja vu. Or you could say, as her housekeeper does, that she’s psychic. You could say, as many people would, that getting the chance to live life over again, correcting your mistakes along the way, is pretty lucky — but Ursula mostly seems weary and confused.
But confused is something you won’t be as a reader. I say this because the premise seems like it would be confusing, and because I’m incredibly impressed that author Kate Atkinson was able to move her plot along without letting it get convoluted or repetitive. As far as tone, I’d say Life after Life is kind of a cross between Downton Abbey and The Time Traveler’s Wife — Downton because the writing is calm, even, very English but still interesting (and because it’s set in the same time period), and Time Traveler’s Wife because the author manipulates time without manipulating the reader. (Both comparisons are high compliments, by the way, at least to me. And, while I’m comparing this book to other works of literature, I might as well throw in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and the brilliant Maisie Dobbs series, both of which have pretty strong parallels to Life after Life.)
Even though the plot of this book is sci-fi, the resulting story doesn’t feel that way. It feels true and relatable because of the way Ursula learns from her lives. Even the way she feels the weight and weariness of a life that sometimes seems endless is something we all deal with (at least, I hope we all deal with it — it’s not just me, right?). And aren’t we always re-thinking our paths in life, wondering how they could have been different, and telling ourselves stories of how we can change things in the future based on what we’ve learned in the past? Instead of feeling dizzy from the time travel, the reader feels more and more comfortable, because we’re familiar with the characters and the setting. This novel really is character driven, and Atkinson’s choice of plot allows for brilliantly in-depth character studies as we see how each character responds to different situations.
One of the most beautiful parts of Life after Life is its exploration of war: how it shapes both our national and personal characters, and how it really is a great equalizer. Throughout most of her lives, Ursula lives in England. But, in a few of her incarnations, she moves to Germany before World War II and remains there throughout the war. Experiencing her life as a German citizen near Hitler’s inner circle, and then experiencing her life during the same war as an Englishwoman, brings out the commonalities of human experience instead of focusing on our differences. As readers, we learn a lot about the wars themselves, but we also learn about our own lives and the lives of people we love. And that’s really the point of literature, isn’t it?