“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
I am an absolute sucker for war-time novels, but none I have read previously had quite the emotional impact that this one did. Life After Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, born on a snowy night in the February of 1910. She dies soon after birth, but is reborn again that very same night. Put simply, Ursula cannot die. Or at least when she does die, her life resets. She is given the chance to begin again. What follows is an account of her many lives, leading up to and including the events of the Second World War.
This book contains none of the rose-tinted nostalgia that has come to be associated with WWII, but is rather a frank and brutal tale of loss, hardship and the horrors of war. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more realistic account of life on the home front, and the female perspective was especially refreshing. At times however, the amount of sorrow in this tale was somewhat overwhelming. Just when you think that things can’t get any worse for Ursula, she dies and is reborn yet again, only to live a life as equally dismal as the one before it.
Atkinson’s biggest triumph is in her characterisation. I was rooting not only for Ursula, but her family and friends too. It was both exhausting and intriguing to experience the different fates that each of them suffers during Ursula’s many lives. The residents of Fox Corner are complex and true to life, inspiring affection and loathing in equal measure.
Although an interesting addition to the story, I found Ursula’s friendship with Eva Braun the least engaging. Whilst I thought Atkinson did a good job of ensuring that Braun and Hitler did not come across as caricatures, I was more drawn in by the experiences of normal, run of the mill people. Fictional they may be, but still far more relatable.
When I first started reading the book I was afraid that it would be a far-fetched tale about an attempt to assassinate Hitler (not a spoiler, promise!) It was a relief to find that the story’s themes were actually very simple: human relationships and second chances. We as readers are forced to consider what we might do differently if given the opportunity to do things over again. Atkinson explores this premise perfectly and creates clever links between each of the lives without seeming repetitive.
I was so eager to discover what path Ursula would take next, that I couldn’t put this book down. It was heart-breaking, yet a joy to read overall. Fans of classic literature will also appreciate occasional references to the likes of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, which for me added another level of enjoyment to this novel. This is definitely a curl-up-under-a-blanket-with-a-cup-of-tea sort of book, what with its many nods to winter, so I’d recommend picking it up before the snow melts!