Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Life After Life: Reincarnation for the person who’d rather not come back as a platypus

I’ve been hearing Kate Atkinson’s name in various places and contexts over the past year, and I just happened to have gotten around to reading this book right when The Morning News announced its 2014 Tournament of Books contenders (of which this is not one but sort of is because it's in the pre-tournament playoffs). So well done, me.

If you’ve heard anything about this book, I would be willing to bet that the anything you heard was both (a) positive and (b) a little hard to follow. “There’s this girl . . . and she dies at birth. But, like, then she gets another go at it? But then she drowns as a child. So.”

Well basically, it leaves us at historical fiction with a side of reincarnation, even though it’s rarely addressed as such within the book itself. And instead of coming back as a cow or a wizard or something, Ursula is born again and again to a woman named Sylvie and a man named Hugh, in a warm bedroom in England on a snowy night.

The book is rhythmic down to the smallest detail. The sections of the book, along with Ursula’s life, are ordered in patterns that carry you only so far before inevitably bringing you back to the beginning and starting again, each time taking you on a slightly different path because of Ursula’s slight changes in behavior. Each cycle carries you a bit farther than the last, into later and later years of Ursula’s life. Some cycles overlap with previous cycles, with only minor (but often crucial) variations; some are completely uncharted territory. Each life that Ursula lives is hers and yet different from the last. And while Ursula isn't ever fully aware that she is repeating her life, she's able to affect historical events by making small course corrections each time around.

Step 1: Distract enemy soldiers with kittens. Step 2: There is no Step 2.

And listen, a lot of horrible things happen to Ursula and the people in her life, and there’s often a war on (specifically, a WORLD War), but somehow the overall tone is light. Atkinson writes with a humor that isn’t necessarily humor.
The salami-eating man had followed her out into the corridor when she went in search of the ladies’. She thought he was going to the buffet car but then as she reached the lavatory compartment he attempted, to her alarm, to push in after her. He said something to her that she didn’t understand, although its meaning seemed lewd (the cigar and the salami seemed strange preludes). “Lass mich in Ruhe,” leave me in peace, she said stoutly, but he continued to push her and she continued to push back. She suspected their struggle, polite as opposed to violent, might have looked quite comical to an observer. (p. 336)
You see? A terrible thing is happening, and yet we are given permission to chuckle (albeit somewhat nervously).

Historical events, people, and places are scattered about like tasty yet incidental berries, and Ursula herself is so real that she comes off as neither a hero nor a villain but merely a person. I feel pretty comfortable saying that, for all these reasons and more, this isn’t just a book you should read; this is a book you should read twice.


  1. So what you're saying is, I have your permission to read this? This is good news, cause I definitely bought it in some kind of Kindle deal thing for 99p and I hate to waste 99p...

    For reals though, this sounds really good. *bumps it up kindle priority list*

  2. But--agh. You liked this so much. But it seems too serious/sad and I do not wish to be serious and sad! CRISIS, MEGS.

  3. You're under direct orders to read it, is how I would word that.

  4. It's not more sad than The Goldfinch, and it has a female protagonist and London during the Blitz. You are INVENTING a crisis.

  5. You are, without a doubt, the first person who has made me want to read this book. Everything else I've read about it say"meh" to me, but now I think I need to read it. Apparently twice.

    I have no idea where you found the kitten/soldier gif, but that is one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen. I could watch that for hours.

  6. Who are these party-poopers you've been getting your information from? You can just read it once, though, if you're skeptical.

    I have no idea where I found that gif EITHER. It was floating around in my folders for just such a time as this, apparently.

  7. I found this book to be amazing. I read it again right after I finished
    it the first time. It is complex, original and suggestive of so many
    possibilities. It left me thinking about it for days and I will not
    forget it anytime soon. So many "What ifs". I recommend it to anyone
    interested in English history, war history and humanity.
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