Featured bedtime read: Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson, 2013

4 out of 5

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

Be Ye Men of Valour
November 1930

A FUG OF tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café. She had come in from the rain and drops of water still trembled like delicate dew on the fur coats of some of the women inside. A regiment of white-aproned waiters rushed around at tempo, serving the needs of the Münchner at leisure — coffee, cake and gossip.
He was at a table at the far end of the room, surrounded by the usual cohorts and toadies. There was a woman she had never seen before — a permed, platinum blonde with heavy make-up — an actress by the look of her.

'Don't you wonder sometimes', Ursula said, 'if just one small thing had been different — in the past I mean — if Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and bought him up in, I don't know, say a Quaker household, surely things would be different'.

Here, Kate Atkinson's main protagonist in Life After Life posits what her book tackles head on — the role of fate or providence, the great what ifs that linger beneath the surface.

Ursula's life is a case in point. Born in 1910, baby Ursula has no chance to take a breath, instead she's shockingly suffocated by her mother's own umbilical cord — it was the hand fate dealt, a heavy snowfall prohibiting Doctor Fellowe's arrival with his surgical scissors. So darkness falls, but Ursula is reborn, this time destined to survive. Fellowes snips the cord and Todd sibling number three has begun her journey at the heart of a shambolic, large English family; privileged, loving, care free, (war-times restrictions permitting that is), 'til darkness falls.

Will it be a seaside holiday that rubs out Ursula or a childish accident on an icy roof? Maybe fate will wreak its havoc on darling Teddy, her dear little brother instead, victim of that overexcited reaper Spanish 'flu, possibly, or possibly not. Is he instead to be shot down in Halifax in the next war?

Yes, this is mind boggling stuff, fictions within fiction, each scenario leaving its shadowed impression on the next — and why not? Atkinson is a literary giant after all; if anyone can play outside the rules, she can. And anyway, aren't we all just one step away from a different path — a sticky end, a rightful love? Life After Life reminds us of the precarious nature of existence and its many twists and turns. For Ursula, even a first kiss is pivotal, to concede or fight back. Thankfully, for the passive reader, matters are simpler. Whatever Ursula decides, aged 16, Atkinson's vivid writing holds us up to each and every moment: 'Kiss seemed too courtly a word for what Howie was doing. He prodded his enormous tongue like an ox's against the portcullis of her teeth. And she was amazed to realise he was expecting her to open her mouth and let the tongue in — she would choke for sure. Mrs. Glover's tongue press in the kitchen came unwantedly to mind.'

With a gesture towards her seminal Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson's deft prose dances through the familial patterns of life at Fox Corner. The ups and downs of sibling love and indignation, while war-time Britain cushions, appalls and kills. We're sucked into a kaleidoscope of living history and raw emotions. Don't cry Tessa I had to tell myself, don't be a goose, this is just a story, but that's the thing with Kate Atkinson's writing — it's never just a story.

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  • There aren't enough breathless adjectives to describe Life After Life: Dazzling, witty, moving, joyful, mournful, profound. Wildly inventive, deeply felt. Hilarious. Humane.

    Simply put: it's one of the best novels I've read this century.
    - Gillian Flynn (author)
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More about the author

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Book of the Year for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and has been a critically acclaimed, international bestselling author ever since.

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