Reincarnation on Repeat: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifePublished: April 2nd, 2013
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 15 hours, 34 minutes

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.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Sex, Death and Teleportation: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

The Teleportation AccidentPublished: February 26, 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre(s): Fiction, Comedy
Format: eBook
Length: 369 pages

Egon Loeser, protagonist of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident, is an asshole. He’s obsessed with sex, contemptuous of his friends, hopelessly infatuated with a girl who doesn’t return his affections, and completely untalented as a theatrical director. In the hands of a lesser author, such an unlikable main character could be the fatal flaw that alienates most readers. However, Beauman makes up for Loeser’s bad behavior by populating the novel’s supporting cast with striking, sharply drawn characters and filling it with laugh-out-loud comedy throughout.

At the start of the story, Loeser is a set designer in decadent pre-war Berlin. Loeser’s 1931 is full of never-ending parties, desultory work on a play production that never seems any closer to performance, and an ever-vigilant search for good cocaine. The play he is working on is the story of the life of Adriano Lavicini, a seventeenth-century stage designer best known for the tragic accident that ended his career and life.

Lavicini, it seems, built a complex special effect known as the Teleportation Device which brought down half the walls of a theater and killed two dozen people (and a cat). Loeser, set designer for the play about Lavicini’s life, builds a much more modest Teleportation Device that merely serves to accidentally dislocate the star actor’s arms. Different types of Teleportation Devices are a running theme throughout the play; Lavicini’s, Loeser’s and a literal Teleportation Device built by a Californian professor named Bailey who Loeser meets later.

After the failure of Loeser’s stage device, he heads to yet another Berlin party, where he fortuitously runs into a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation). Loeser was Adele’s tutor when she was younger, and when he discovers the pudgy girl he knew has transformed into an incredibly beautiful young woman, he is instantly smitten. This encounter completely changes the course of Loeser’s life; he becomes obsessed with Adele and follows her first to Paris and then to Los Angeles.

As Loeser fruitlessly follows Adele around the world, he runs into a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom leap off the page. Loeser becomes a fan of the hard-boiled fiction of Stent Mutton and accidentally meets Mutton and his wife one day while wandering lost in California. Dolores Mutton, Stent’s knock-out wife, is beautiful but also incredibly terrifying, later threatening Loeser with death in no uncertain terms. Loeser ends up living in the guest house of one Colonel Gorge, a gruff, powerful man who is suffering agnosia, which causes him to confuse pictures for the real thing – hold up a picture of a woman, and he becomes convinced she is there in the room. The book also includes a few chapters from other perspectives; in one, Beauman focuses on a con artist named Scramsfield, who gets Loeser caught up in one of his scams. In another, Beauman tells the story of the surprisingly unhinged Dr. Bailey, whose fraught personal history has influenced the unconventional means and methods he uses to research teleportation.

Even if The Teleportation Accident occasionally rambled, I was always drawn back in by Beauman’s flair for characterization and comedy. I laughed out loud a good dozen times throughout, which is a rare achievement for any book. The only real criticism I’d level against the book is that the opening pages are needlessly obtuse; I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of readers put it down at the beginning out of a worry that the novel would continue at that pitch throughout. Thankfully, once Beauman settles down and gets to business, The Teleportation Accident is a thoroughly readable and highly enjoyable book.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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