I didn’t actually pick this book up initially for its own sake. I picked it up because of what I’d heard about the companion/ sequel, A God in Ruins. All within about a week, several people mentioned how brilliant the writing was, how complex an exploration of character it was, how clever a plot it has. I wanted to read it, and I decided I wanted to go about that by reading Life After Life first. I’m sure I could have appreciated A God in Ruins as a standalone as well, but I am so glad that I decided to start here, because I loved this book.
This book follows Ursula Beresford Todd through her many lives. Ursula, for some unknown reason, is born again and again; each time she dies, she starts at the beginning once more, on a snowy night in her family home of Fox Corner. I adored the back-and-forth structure, which reminded me a little of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (one of my all-time favourites). I could tell you all about every aspect of this book which I found amazing, but perhaps I should focus on the two top things which I fell in love with – which were the writing, and the characters.
Kate Atkinson has a brilliant style, perfectly balanced between being oblique and direct, wonderfully characterising a family all of whom are no more complex than most people you will meet – or perhaps I should say, just as complex as most people you will meet. They are all flawed, and I finished the book feeling fond of all of them, with a touch of exasperation – much how I feel about real people I’m fond of.
Anyone who reads many of my reviews will be aware that I frequently gripe with blurbs of books for inadequately describing their contents, and that I am absolutely an advocate for the use of content/ trigger warnings. The blurb of Life After Life is why I hadn’t picked it up before now. Its description of the book makes sense, post-read – but that is not when a blurb is most useful. It is very much a description of the concept (what if you could live your life again and again, until you got it right) rather than of the content.
As with previous books, this one also definitely needed some kind of content or trigger warning for particular storylines (see Ava Lavender). Certain things are upsetting enough to read about, but if I had any personal experience of them, it would have been devastating. A content warning is both simple to add and incredibly useful – especially as this is book concerned very strongly with women and women’s experiences. I’m disappointed that while Atkinson wants to explore and depict gendered violences, she and her publishers chose not to accompany it with any attempt to protect those who have experienced it. (For a list of content warnings for Life After Life, see the bottom of this post). Although I wouldn’t consider ‘spoilers’ more important than protecting people from actual harm anyway, it is especially not an effective refutation here, where Ursula’s life takes many, many paths, all of which eventually, end. We know that Ursula will die, we know she will live her life again, differently – and a warning would give away very little of the actual shape the plot will take.
This criticism though, while important to me, is to do with the presentation of the book, not the content itself. The story, I really enjoyed – despite its rougher elements, it is intensely human.
Atkinson’s writing is undeniably skilful – while some Goodreads reviewers seem not to have enjoyed it, or found the plot lacking structure, it didn’t bother me at all. It’s worth being clear, if you look for a clear beginning, middle and end to your novels, this might not be for you. It keeps a fairly even pace throughout the story, although that’s not to say it lacks tension. I enjoyed the character studies and loved the cyclical nature of Ursula’s existence. Unlike others, I liked it being unexplained. For me, going into too much detail on the why would have been jarring, and have reduced the story somehow from the magical construction it is. I loved the story, the beauty and cleanness of the writing, and its masterful architecture.