Life After Life ★★★★★
Reagan Arthur Books, 2013
An Advanced Reader Copy was provided from the publisher through NetGalley.
I’m pretty sure the idea of being forced to live my life over and over again is something plucked from my worst nightmares, but who among us hasn’t been at least tempted to dream of it occasionally with a wistful sigh. Please, please, please, just one more chance to live the best moments again and when necessary, to make different choices? But I would imagine if any of us were actually tasked to unravel all the “right” and “wrong” choices from our life and to relive the bad with the good, we’d go screaming into the night like raving banshees.
For what is a perfect life? How many kicks at the can would it take for you to answer that question, if it is indeed answerable at all? Change one thing, change everything, change nothing, change all the good, change all the bad. Round and round and round. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. What’s the saying? If I only knew then, what I know now…what? What would you do different? And would different choices always translate into better choices?
Ursula is a normal British girl except she’s pretty certain she’s lived her life before, maybe many, many times. The older she gets, the stronger these feelings of deju vu become, hounding her like ghosts in the night. Her prescience is rarely crystal clear, more like moods or instinct. Do this. Don’t do that. Run away. Run toward. Stay still.
Life After Life starts slow and unassuming. The story is teasing, the pacing a dawdling, scenic walk through the English countryside. But from the very first page I was enthralled and little did I realize what a powerful spell Atkinson was casting on my reader brain. Because as you continue to read, the book picks up gravity and speed and texture. Each life after life reinforces the tender bonds you have been working on with each of the characters. Your acquaintance with them is not one brief life, but many, many lives. Like Ursula we are both cursed and blessed with the long view, the big picture. We come to know all the various permutations of death, cruelty, love and loss. We bear witness through two World Wars and how some forces, no matter how forewarned, are unstoppable, greater even than the hand of time.
This is a very English story, and is steeped in pre-1950 historical detail. Not ever having watched an episode of Downton Abbey I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest fans of that show will love this novel for its acute sense of time and attention to detail. Atkinson is ruthless in her pursuit for authenticity. This is wartime England, no time to pussyfoot around. This has got to be right, and in her quest I believe she succeeds magnificently. The details are small but glorious, and paint such an intimate portrait you will feel absorbed into Ursula’s quiet family life where there are disagreements and births, and jealousies and forgiveness. Yes, there is the rumble of the earth as the German bombs fall during the Blitz, but such terrible moments co-exist with the stark ordinariness of a life lived. Dinners, and picnics, and birthdays and games of cricket, and work, and gardening, and lots and lots of tea.
“Ow!” one of the evacuees squealed beneath the table. “Some bugger just kicked me.”…Something cold and wet nosed itself up Ursula’s skirt. She hoped very much that it was the nose of one of the dogs and not one of the evacuees.
This knowledge of the ATS girl’s background seemed to particularly infuriate Edwina, who was gripping the butter knife in her hand as if she were planning to attack someone with it–Maurice or the ATS girl, or anyone within stabbing distance by the look of it. Ursula wondered how much harm a butter knife could do. Enough she supposed.
There is whimsy and humor laced throughout this novel and it makes for a beautiful contrast to the more serious components of tragedy and war. Life is a farce after all; if you can’t find the humor in it you’ve been doing it wrong or have missed the point entirely. Atkinson has not missed the point. As readers, we are in capable hands. She has one helluva story to tell you, and trust me, you don’t want to miss it.
There are some great alternative covers available for this title. Keep your eye out for them. I think the fox might be my favorite.