As I will eventually be covering her most recently published novel, A God in Ruins, I decided to also read Kate Atkinson's previous work, Life After Life, which was the winner for Best Historical Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. With a premise that promises readers a character that is forced to relive her own life over and over again, I was ready for a novel that could probably span more categories than just historical fiction.
The Situation: In England in 1910, Ursula Todd is born during an epic snow storm. For years the family and their servants would remark that they had never seen snow like that, and hadn't since. As Ursula grows up, her life is marked by a constant sense of deja vu. She often has the feeling of having done certain things before, even though she never actually has, and having been certain places, even though she has never seen them in her life. She is also often plagued by strange and cryptic dreams, and knows answers to questions that no one has even asked yet. Sometimes a sense of dread or foreboding will come upon her so heavily that she must act, leading her mother to send her to a psychologist, and her father to quite naturally be very concerned. Her brothers and sister all have their own individual traits - Maurice is forever a jerk, Pamela reliable and caring, Teddy sweet and incredibly likable, and Jimmy...well he is just Jimmy - but Ursula's is most likely the most troubling.
The Problem: It seems that Ursula has been destined to live her life over and over again, with her death being different from the one she experienced before. While she does end up dying from an incredibly aggressive strain of the Spanish flu multiple times, it isn't for lack of trying to avoid it. But only once does she die from accidentally falling out of a window, from unknowingly gassing herself in her own apartment, from choosing to die in the middle of the war, or from the collapse of a wall after England has been bombed by the Nazis. And in each life, small decisions she makes can not only save her own life, but others as well, especially with Adolf Hitler rising to power in Germany, bringing about World War II and all of the devastation it would inflict on Europe. In each life that she lives, Ursula has different experiences, and gets a little better at avoiding peril. But what is the point of her being given all of these chances? What is she supposed to do that would stop her waking up on that incredibly snowy night after having died moments before?
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel with elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Ursula Todd is living her life over and over again. A lot of the events are the same, but some are completely altered, or erased altogether, with just the slightest change. Only sometimes does she get a kiss from a boy on her 16th birthday, and only in some timelines does she end up married, and only in one does she end up a mother. Life After Life is a book that allows the author to give her character multiple story lines without having to pick and choose just one to follow through on. Because Ursula is bound to wake up again on that snowy day as a new baby, she gets to try out a different course this time and see how her life will go. Unfortunately for her, because she is always born in England in 1910, her life will always include World War II and the awful events that come with it. Her brothers will always become soldiers, England will always be bombed, and many will always end up dead. It isn't so much a question of whether we would change our future if we could. It is more of a question of if we could change our future, would it matter?
My Verdict: It is always tricky business for any book, movie, or TV show to try to attack time travel, because logically, it just doesn't work. But Atkinson deals with it in such a way that doesn't let the troublesome logistics of it get in the way of a good story. And with every fresh start of Ursula's life, the reader all at once both knows and doesn't know what to expect. The general path stays the same, but many key events could turn out very different, and that is what makes the book such a compelling read. With every little decision that Ursula makes, the reader doesn't know if any little change will cause Ursula to live a little longer, maybe even accomplish whatever it is she is supposed to accomplish to stop the cycle, or cause that particular timeline to come to an end, allowing her to try yet again, starting with that snowy day. I recommend this book not only to historical fiction lovers, especially those who are interested in the events and people surrounding Europe during World War II, but also anyone who would enjoy a somewhat fresh take on time travel.
Favorite Moment: While it may be the longest and most tedious section of the book, I did enjoy the timeline where Ursula works as a sort of rescue worker, looking for survivors among the destruction left behind after the Nazis drop bombs, risking her own life in the process.
Favorite Character: Ursula's lives are unfortunately full of unsavory and reprehensible characters, but her sister Pamela is always one of the good ones.
Recommended Reading: I typically avoid novels that center around any sort of war, so I had a hard time coming up with a recommendation here. But I did thoroughly enjoy Between Shades of Gray by young adult fiction writer Ruta Sepetys. The story follows fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas as she and her family are deported to Siberia by Stalin in 1941. It doesn't have the time travel element, but it is an incredible story of a harsh journey as experienced by a teenage girl.