‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

Life After LIfestarstarstarstar
Pal·imp·sest noun

1. a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.
2. something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form

“On a cold and snowy night in 1920, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.”

Not everyone will like this novel’s inventive structure, which plays with the possibilities of infinite chances, but I loved it. The author writes beautifully and uses this unique literary device to great effect. It’s as if the story is on tape and someone hits the rewind button and the same scenario plays out again, but with a slight twist that makes a huge difference. I found this toying with the “what-ifs” both fascinating and captivating and never tiresome. The Todd family was hugely entertaining and became so familiar because of the repetitions and viewing them from different angles. Towards the end of the book, the term palimpsest is mentioned in passing. I did have to look it up, and found the definition an elegant description of this very book. Very clever indeed.

I think I will indulge my impulse to just carry right on with the Todds in  A God in Ruins, not exactly a sequel but a companion novel. It is about Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, a minor character in Life After Life. Teddy is the subject of their eccentric auntie’s children’s books, and a sweet and gentle soul. How he ends up as a fighter pilot in the war is unclear, as is what actually happened when his plane went down in flames and he was presumed dead.

2 responses to “‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

  1. Suzanne Duiker-Kroon

    Hi Joanne!

    I stumbled upon your book blog after a long time of not having read it–so refreshing, and it inspires me to read so many more books!

    I wanted to comment on this novel by Kate Atkinson–it’s ooone that has stuck in my brain for a couple of years now, it’s so good! I loved, loved, loved getting so lost in Ursula’s lives, never being sure I was in a story I’d already heard or if there was going to be a twist I didn’t know. I listened to it on CD in the car on my commutes here & there (and sometimes it would be days between episodes, and in the meantime someone had reset the radio and lost my spot), and I was simultaneously listening to bits of the story on a Playaway while I went for walks–so again, I got the story in fits & starts. And then there were times I couldn’t stop listening after a walk, so I’d lie on the couch & fall asleep to the (excellent) audio version…so I never really knew where I was. That was such a weird feeling, one that suited this story, for sure!

    [Also, I really enjoyed reading A God in Ruins after that, although not nearly as much. I had attempted it before Life After Life, but was quite bored and didn’t finish it. And, your recent review of The Sparrow inspires me to read it–I’ve had both it & the sequel on my ‘to read’ pile for a few years! I think it was a ‘favourite book of all time’ listing in The Banner or something which prompted me to add it to my list.]

    Heard you had a great time with John & Cathy in Ireland–sure sounded very fun!

    Hope this finds you & Dirk well,

    Suzanne Duiker Kroon

    • Hi Suzanne,
      Lovely to hear from you again! Thank you for your kind words. I felt the same way about Life After Life…and that the sequel was not quite as good, but it was good to continue with some of the characters. I wonder if I’ll like the sequel to The Sparrow or if it will disappoint as well. Sequels can be tricky! And then there are so many other books and authors to discover…Hope to see you again soon! Happy reading! Joanne

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