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Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

By / December 1, 2015 / no comments

Science fiction is about the new, the strange, encountering things that take us in different directions. So why do so many science fiction novels feel familiar? Sometimes it seems that to discover works that really do open up new areas, we have to turn to that zone where science fiction and the mainstream rub uneasily against each other.

life after lifeAnd that’s precisely where you’ll find a novel like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. There had been a vague sense of a time slip in her earlier novel, Human Croquet, but mostly she’s known for prize-winning mainstream fiction and for a series of crime novels featuring police inspector turned private eye Jackson Brodie. But nothing really prepared the way for Life After Life.

Let me try and give a flavour of the novel. One snowy February morning in 1910, Ursula is born and immediately dies. Then she is born again, on the same morning to the same parents, and this time lives a little longer. But she dies again, and is reborn again. One time she dies in an accident, but is able to avoid that in her next life; once she dies in the Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of World War One, but next time around that is avoided too. Once she is killed by an abusive husband, but she doesn’t marry that man again; once she lives into old age, only to be killed by a faulty gas fire shortly after her retirement. She is killed several times in the Blitz, but also works tirelessly with rescuers; in other lives she travels to Germany between the wars, on one occasion trying to murder Hitler in a Munich restaurant, on another occasion being raped by Russian soldiers in the ruins of Berlin.

History isn’t changed, but her life is, constantly, through countless iterations. Slowly we begin to get a sense that it isn’t just instinct that helps her to avoid the pitfalls of one life the next time around. Some vague memory seeps through from one life to the next, and we see that she is trying to shape her life towards one particular end.

Her beloved younger brother, Teddy, becomes a pilot in the Second World War, and in one bombing mission late in the war he is shot down. Ursula is trying to find a way into a life in which Teddy survives.

a god in ruinsIn a brilliant sequel that came out earlier this year, A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson describes the post-war life that Ursula managed to create for Teddy. It’s a life of disappointments and failures and a few small pleasures, a very ordinary life in fact. But Atkinson replaces the jagged, reiterated lives of Life After Life with a narrative in which time is not coherent. The story constantly drifts backwards or leaps forward, sometimes in mid-sentence. Until finally all time collapses back into the moment when his bomber is hit over Germany.

Read the two books together and you will get an astonishing glimpse of what can be done with time in fiction that is unlike anything else you have ever read.

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