There are books that are affective
for what they say about life, the world, and our place in it. And then there are books that are affective
for what they don’t say. At 544 pages in
hardcover Life After Life is an
extremely wordy novel. And it has a lot
to say about a great number of subjects.
It is the story of Ursula Todd and her many lives. It is not a time travel novel, nor a parallel
worlds novel, but a meditation on what it would be like if, every time someone
died, they started over, back at the beginning, and did it all again. If there was in fact life, after life. The novel imagines what it would be like to
be Ursuala Todd who, through no fault of her own, must experience life after
life after life, with no respite.
Atkinson is one of the most subtle
wits I have ever read. Her subject and
setting—England and Europe during first World War I and then World War II—is
not particularly original although it must be said that her narrative of life
in a perpetually bombarded city, or of the feeling of waiting for the worst to
happen, is poignantly rendered. Her wit,
though, comes through in how she allows characters to react to the world around
them, and how the world reacts to them.
Child Ursula grows in precocity every time she is born, to the point she
practically carries the weight of the world in her later childhoods. Let us consider that the greatest tragedy
often imagined in society is that of a child experiencing evil and war, and let
us then imagine a child being continually born to experience the same war and
the same death. As Ursula grows up having
a greater and greater foreboding of that death and of her death, one life after
the other, Life After Life becomes an
astounding work of literary finesse.
After Life is inhabited primarily by women, who represent a range of feminine
identities. Atkinson allows them each
their own nature, to have contradictory reactions to life and to each other, in
fact to be human without any special attention being given to it. Atkinson’s understated approach to women in
her novel lend a startling poignancy to our view of how society treated those
women who strayed too far from feminine ideals, of how women were taught to
hate themselves, and how the lives of men were given precedence over those of
women. There are many beautiful moments
in Life After Life, and many
heartbreaking ones. Many people have no
doubt fantasized about what they would do if they had life to live over, but
that fantasy becomes a nightmare when you don’t have the luxury of choosing
when you live or die. The most affective
moments were when the reader knows that if Ursula had a choice she would have
died, and yet life forces her to go on.
Death is only an escape when it lets you go.
Readers interested in life during
the Great Wars will enjoy this novel for its realistic representations of
London and Berlin during the bombings.
Readers who can suspend disbelief and allow a novel to become an
experiment in narrative meant to reveal something about the nature of life,
rather than just being a straightforward story, will enjoy the speculative
aspects of Life After Life. It is a novel driven by ideas, written with a
delicacy that allows its characters to shine.
Anyone in search of a “great, big book” will find much to love in this