There are probably very few of us who have never thought, “If only I could go back and change that one decision I made, my life would be so much better.” Perhaps it was something that happened to you or to someone you love, or maybe one choice that you would make differently now, if you only had the chance. But what if that one change in your life would cause you to miss out on many good things that happened later? Or what if the other choice led to tragedy instead?
It is not a spoiler for me to tell you that on the second page of Life After Life, Ursula walks into a café and shoots der Führer, for which she is immediately killed by his guards. A couple of pages later, Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, but the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and she dies. A few pages later, Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, and is sleeping peacefully in her cradle while her mother munches on toast and sips tea. Confused yet?
It may be an oversimplification to call this “quantum physics meets historical fiction,” but that is probably the best way to describe this amazing new book by Kate Atkinson. Ursula lives through the first and second world wars, at least in some of her lives. She is always born into the same family on the same day, but a few key events may or may not take place each time, and each change brings a different outcome. Interestingly, all of the characters have the same basic personality and nature, even though their lives are transformed in many details. Ursula receives support from her wonderfully crazy Aunt Izzie, the black sheep of the family, and a very quirky psychiatrist who helps her to deal with the déjà vu and terrible premonitions that she begins to experience. Although reincarnation and Buddhism are mentioned here and there, I am not aware of any Buddhist teaching that allows people to relive the same life over and over in order to correct their mistakes.
Please don’t think that this novel, at 527 pages, would get monotonous. Quite the contrary! Atkinson does not bring us all the way back to Ursula’s birth every single time. Sometimes, she just replays certain key portions of her life, and sometimes she skips backward and forward in time. The reader is eager to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see where the changes were made and to find out what will happen to our beloved heroine this time. Ursula doesn’t meander through time forever, either. The ending is very purposeful and satisfying.
If you’re looking for something entirely new that feels warm and familiar, you will love this intimate exploration of one ordinary woman’s life in extraordinary times.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader’s copy of this book, lent to me by a librarian friend. My opinions are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.