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Book Review – Life After Life By Kate Atkinson

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‘What if we had a chance to do it again and again,’ Teddy said, ‘until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’

This book took me a little time to read. It couldn’t be rushed. It was one of those books that you would do yourself a total disservice if you tried to read quickly. It needed to be absorbed slowly, mulled over and really thought about. And I guarantee you it is TOTALLY well worth it. For a start, check out this bit of stunning writing:

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled. No breath. All the world comes down to this. One breath. Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearly of an ear. Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

There is much, much more from where that came from. I found no matter what part of the story Kate Atkinson was telling, her writing was beyond beautiful. Even when discussing death, loss, pain or despair. She has a beautiful way with words.

The books follows main character Ursula and her numerous lives. What would it be like if every time you died you came back again? What would that do to the person? What would it mean for the people around that person? And of course, how would it alter the course of the world and even possibly history? The chapters flick back and forth and with each time she dies, the stories reincarnate with her. Each time her life story would slightly be altered, have a slightly different direction. Each time she would have a sense of déjà vu or a sense of foreboding for no good reason. From the readers point of view it’s beyond intriguing to watch Ursula make different decisions based on a feeling of fear, but not knowing it’s because in another life she or someone else had made a decision that ended badly for her or for people around her. That subconsciously she was trying to prevent events that she doesn’t even know will happen in her current life. Her alternate lives have her in various scenarios, sometimes taking multiple attempts at living to actually survive an event. Sometimes she would come back and avoid the first death or disaster only to fall to something that still ended her life in the same time or situation. Each time the story rewinds. Many times we start back at her birth, or start back at a certain chain of events.

Everything familiar somehow. ‘It’s called déjà vu,’ Sylvie said. ‘It’s a trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery.’ Ursula was sure that she could recall lying in the baby carriage beneath the tree. ‘No,’ Sylvie said, ‘no one can remember being so small,’ yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, turning and twisting in front of her face.

The jumping back and forth slows down once she reaches adulthood; she seems to have fewer situations that bring her back to being born on a freezing snowy night in 1910. As the gaps widen between her life restarting, the stories really start to develop. World War 2 is starting to encroach on Britain and it is these stories, these potential lives lived by her that cram the most gripping detail in. Kate Atkinson really does take Ursula down every potential life that you could lead in wartime. She manages to layer so many layers into one character, see so many different scenes with in the same war and have so many different experiences. One such life I am so glad that she wrote about was when Ursula was in Berlin. She was trapped in Germany when the war accelerated, and more so, trapped within Hitler’s inner circle. I think that this life of Ursula in Germany was so important to the greater story, how else can you convey so many details through one character if she doesn’t experience them first hand.

At the Fuhrer’s approach the crowd’s excitement had grown to a rabid frenzy of Sieg Heil and Heil Hitler. ‘Am I the only one to be unmoved?’ Sylvie said. ‘What is it, do you suppose – mass hysteria of some kind?’ ‘I know,’ Ursula said, ‘It’s like the Emperor’s new clothes. We’re the only ones who can see the naked man.’ ‘He’s a clown,’ Sylvie said dismissively.

 The detail over chapters and chapters of the blitz in London and the people caught up in it makes you feel that you too are trapped in the midst of the swishes and booms of bombs, the dust caked in your lungs and the constant fear and weariness of being trapped in a city that is slowly being obliterated. The rawness of what people faced sometimes was hard to digest. I could compare it to the book The Cellist of Sarajvo By Steven Galloway. (Also WELL worth reading) You are constantly on edge. It’s unsettling. The facts laid out cold and bare, babies dying in bombings, people blown apart like crackers, the cold, no food, the smell and the sound of war and the fact that soon Ursula and other characters began to find a normalcy in the constant violence.

Death and decay were on her skin, in her hair, in her nostrils, her lungs, beneath her fingernails, all the time. They had become part of her.

So I’m over-emotional and trying to put down on paper words that just don’t seem poetic enough, descriptive enough to tell you about this novel. I don’t feel that my review can do this book justice, I honestly think that everyone will pull something different from it and I cannot recommend it enough. I personally found this book so incredibly thought provoking. It’s hard to wrap your head around the possibilities raised within the pages. So much of it replays in my mind, even after finishing it and I’ve been kept up at night thinking about its many aspects and layers. There was actually a certain paragraph that hit very close to home for me;

‘Hugh’s sixtieth birthday’, one more in a roll-call of family occasions. Later, when she understood that it was the last time they would all be together, she wished she had paid more attention.

How true is that, even in our everyday lives today. How often do we go about life, seeing people we love, family and friends and just check it off like a box on a to-do list. The finality of not being able to have these times back gets forgotten until someone is no longer here. This is what I think this book does so well, it explicitly points out how life is short, how life is unfair, how we have no way of predicting the future and how unlike Ursula, we can’t just go back and re-live it every time the black bat comes for us.

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