Thursday, 31 July 2014
The story is based on an age old question: what would we do differently if we could live our lives over again? As such, the novel is quite philosophical at times, prompting its readers to consider the big ideas: life, death and fate.
I mean, if you could go back and live your life over, what one thing would you change? Avoid ever meeting your ex? Stand up to that bully in school? Somehow prevent Princess Diana from visiting Paris in August 1997... or maybe from marrying Prince Charles in 1981? But surely if you could go back in time and change history, you would make it momentous: foil the September 11 plot, murder Hitler? These are the thoughts that must have pulled at Kate Atkinson's mind as she danced her way through this novel, and it certainly feels like this was a pleasurable book to write. The characters can live forever - dying, then being reborn, over and over : they can survive anything. There is something very satisfying, as a reader, to know that the people in the story will make it through; that no matter how bad things get, they will be okay. . This very plot device enables Atkinson to deal with some very disturbing issues, such as rape, domestic abuse and murder, in a palatable way. And in turn, she makes us, as readers, face the idea in our own lives: no matter how bad it gets, where there is life...
The protagonist, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910, in rural England, as the snow begins to fall, but lack of medical assistance and a complication at birth, means that she dies immediately. In an instant, she is reborn, as the snow falls and the story begins again, made possible because one detail was changed: this time her mother had a small pair of scissors at hand to cut the cord. And so the story progresses, moving swiftly through the Great War period, and up to and beyond World War Two, with Ursula dying many times, and being reborn over and over. And so we come to realise that the title, 'Life After Life', actually refers to a series of lives, following one after the next and not a reference to the afterlife that one usually associates with dying.
One thing that I noticed in the book, was that, perhaps, it was not only Ursula who could go back in time and change history. It seems that her mother too, made notes on how to do things differently 'next time round' - like when Ursula died the first time - 'remember to keep a small pair of scissors nearby', she tells herself.
I thought it interesting too that the only thing that Ursula wanted of her mother's, years later, was the carriage clock, which her mother, in turn, had taken from her mother's home. This special clock, with its associations time and perhaps time-travel, passing from mother to daughter, is a very interesting concept and added a layer of detail to the story that was delightful.
Indeed, there is much food for thought in this novel, but more than anything, it is a hugely enjoyable read, with characters that live and breath, and will haunt you long after the final page has been turned and the book returned to the shelf. Simply put - read 'Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, or spend the rest of the year wishing that you had.