Life After Life (Atkinson)

Kate Atkinson has written her masterpiece. Of that, I have no doubt. She promises to reveal the secrets behind her elaborate masterpiece if you go to her website (, but I’m not going to look, at least not yet. I want to let it all sink in for a while.

Comparisons with Groundhog Day and Sliding Doors are inevitable. The protagonist, Ursula, lives her life over and over again. Each time, different choices lead to different results. As the process continues, though, she seems increasingly aware of what’s happening. Atkinson, too, provides us with more connections between her different lives (the ‘mounds’ of rubble in WW2 England and the ‘mounds’ of sand on the beach). Dr. Kellet is the only one who seems to get it. And this is, quite succinctly, it – “Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now” (496).

Here is one of the places where I thought the book fell flat. The insights about time and choices are not really that profound. To say that  “[h]istory is all about ‘what ifs'” (473) is not enough to arrive at after 473 pages and so many versions of her life. Nor is this moment of realization: “Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being” (476).

It’s only right that Ursula’s life intersect with the political, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but here I think Atkinson goes too far and indulges in an almost trite effort to have Ursula change the shape of history.

I was most moved by the details of Fox Corner and Ursula’s work (and her comrades) during the Blitz in London. These scenes, and the contrast between them, were quite evocative and definitely my favorite.

There are 529 pages here, and they are easily read. I’ll remember them less for any thematic elements than for moments and for characters. So it’s worth reading – but find a used copy of get it at the library. There’s no rush.


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