Life After Life explores the concept of reincarnation and how simple decisions can fundamentally alter the course of one’s life. Although I mostly liked it, the story got bogged down in the middle and ended ambiguously.
Ursula Todd was born in 1910 and grows up with her large family in the bucolic English countryside. But sometimes she doesn’t grow up at all due to childhood accidents and at her first birth she is stillborn. Every time she dies the clock is reset to the snowy night in February, 1910 when she was originally born. I lost track, but I’d estimate that she lived 15 different versions of her childhood. As she racks up more reincarnations, she begins to have a sense of deja vu that allows her to save herself or others from danger. In other words, she changes the course of her future. The reincarnations were so persistent that I began to believe that she was being earmarked to do something remarkable in adulthood.
And she finally does become an adult. She lives several different versions of her grown up life, most set against the backdrop of World War II and all told at length. This is where the book stalls a bit. The multiple versions of her childhood are told sometimes in detail and sometimes briefly. This technique allowed the story to keep moving along. But each scenario of her adult life is fully fleshed out. In one, she is married to a German and acquainted with Adolf Hitler. In another, she is killed when London is bombed. In another, she is killed by her abusive husband. Individually, they were interesting and well written. Collectively, it was just too much.
The ending didn’t resolve much. A grand explanation for Ursula’s reincarnations was never revealed. But then, maybe it was the author’s intent to imply that it was a random thing with only personal meaning.
I really like Ms. Atkinson’s writing. Her style is smart and fluid. She skillfully developed complex characters and made each scene come alive. The theme of reincarnation is an interesting one, but she also explores other themes like family, the high toll war takes on people, and what it means to be British.
I just wish her editor had told her to pare down the middle part of this novel.
I would recommend this book with conditions, which I’ve already covered. I think it would be a great (although long) book club book because there is plenty to discuss.
Have you read Life After Life? How about other novels with a reincarnation theme? Please share your thoughts!