Life After Life opens with its main character, Ursula Todd, dying as an infant… and then being born again. This time, the doctor arrives in time and Ursula lives, only to die a few years later when she drowns at sea. She is born again and saved from drowning by a man painting a seascape who gets to her in time. Ursula lives her life over and over, never entirely aware of the process. She just gets a strange foreboding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. It isn’t until the end of the first World War, when the family’s housekeeper comes home with a bout of Spanish Flu after a night of celebration, that Ursula begins actively trying to change her fate. Up until this point I was enjoying the novel, but after this series of harrowing deaths I was thoroughly hooked.
Atkinson handles Ursula’s multiple lives with a deft hand, always presenting a slightly different perspective when she returns to familiar ground. For long stretches of time the book is an entirely realistic portrayal of life in England during World War I and II, and the only hints of fantasy come into play when Ursula slowly begins remembering more of her previous lives. Her parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist to discuss her constant feelings of “deja vu”, but that doesn’t stop Ursula from feeling certain she’s experienced things before.
However, Atkinson largely avoids turning Ursula’s life into a tale of her trying to change the future with foreknowledge. For the most part, she lives her life and turns left where she once turned right out of an unconscious desire to avoid horrible death or dreary misery. At one point in the book Ursula finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage so fraught with tension that I began hoping she would die soon so that she could take another crack at life. In another life, Ursula becomes intertwined with the German Third Reich at very high levels and Atkinson provides a surprising and sympathetic portrayal of Eva Braun that only makes those scenes more tense and disturbing as the war descends into chaos.
Ursula takes lovers or gets married, she has a child or she doesn’t, she lives her life and dies and lives again. With each successive life Ursula has a chance to make things right this time, and although that is sometimes true, it is also occasionally true that getting what she wants makes things far worse than they’d ever been before. Atkinson never explains what causes Ursula to live over and over, and the ending is open to interpretation. However, over the course of the story, we’ve experienced a myriad number of alternate Ursula Todds, each with slight variations on the same hopes and dreams, and the result is a deep, layered portrayal of life during wartime, as well as a striking character study of one woman growing up and coming into her own.
I’ve enjoyed previous Atkinson books, but Life After Life might very well be her masterpiece. When I describe it to my friends, I refer to it as “Downton Abbey with infinite reincarnation”, and if that sounds appealing to you, you should definitely pick it up. I also highly recommend the audiobook version, which has a pitch-perfect narrator with a supremely British name – Fenella Woolgar.