Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life Longlisted for 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: born, lives, change, chances, destiny

Life After Life is getting rave reviews everywhere. I’ve seen more people declare it as their “book of the year (so far)” than any other title.  I loved the concept and with all the buzz I was expecting to enjoy it. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I found it repetitive and I couldn’t engage with the central character, Ursula, at all.

The book begins well, with Ursula shooting Hitler. It then jumps back in time to Ursula’s birth, but Ursula doesn’t survive. In a strange twist of events Ursula is born again and this time survives. Ursula continues to die at regular intervals, each time being reborn, living slightly longer, and learning from past events.

Staircases were very dangerous places, according to Sylvie. People died on them. Sylvie always told them not to play at the top of the stairs. Ursula crept along the carpet runner. Took a quiet breath and then, both hands out in front of her, as if trying to stop a train, she threw herself at the small of Bridget’s back. Bridget whipped her head round, mouth and eyes wide in horror at the sight of Ursula. Bridget went flying, toppling down the stairs in a great flurry of arms and legs. Ursula only just managed to stop herself from following in her wake. Practice makes perfect.

Unfortunately I couldn’t connect with the the format. Every time Ursula died I groaned inside. I found the repetition of each scene irritating and even though new details were added each time there was more to annoy me than entertain. It could be down to the fact I’ve never had much success with this type of structure – The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver also annoyed me.

Another problem was that the fragmented nature of the plot meant I struggled to become emotionally attached to Ursula. The fact she kept being reborn also meant each tragedy had an increasingly small impact on me.

On a positive note, the writing quality was good – a big improvement from When Will There Be Good News?, the only other book by Kate Atkinson that I’ve read.

Due to the volume of glowing reviews I persevered with this book for longer than I normally would, giving up after 175 pages. I seem to be the only one who didn’t fall in love with Life After Life so please don’t take my word for it. Give it a try!

DNF

.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

Every little detail has a purpose, every single decision was made for a reason and carried a particular consequence. The Pretty Good Gatsby

…the structure, rather than create difficulties or disjointedness in the reader’s understanding, brings us to a deeper knowledge of Ursula and her motives. The Writes of Woman

…one of the most extraordinary books you’ll read this year. Alex in Leeds


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29 Comments

  1. Priscilla says:

    It’s a bit early to start declaring anything “book of the year.” By the time November rolls around, I have to remind myself what I read. No matter how much I like a book in March, I’ve generally forgotten it by September, unless it’s really spectacular and I’m recommending it a lot to people in real life. That said, I admit I enjoyed this book. I liked the way Ursula was more detached herself. The starting over was a bit confusing at first (especially reading on a Kindle, where I couldn’t easily flip back), but once I got the hang of it, it didn’t bother me one way or the other. I will say, the Germany sections dragged a bit for me, while I thought the sections about the Blitz up there with Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch.

    1. Jackie says:

      Priscilla, I think I can normally tell when a book is special enough to be one of my books of the year. Some in the middle may go up or down my rankings, but the very top positions tend to stay static.

      I haven’t read The Night Watch, but I admit to being overdosed by WWII stories. They have to be REALLY special to impress me. Perhaps that is another issue for this book?

    2. Kate says:

      Priscilla, I totally agree with your comments on the book (including your remark about sarah water’s book) and have flipped back so many times I was glad I wasn’t reading it on a kindle. I did enoy it though, very much.

  2. Charlie says:

    I’m looking forward to this one a lot, but in a way I’m not surprised you’ve said it’s repetitive. I suppose with the different lives you wouldn’t expect it, but then the very fact of multiple lives makes it a possibility. I’m trying to not let my expectations be too high, hopefully it’ll be better that way.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, I hope that you enjoy it more than I did. Everyone else seems to love it so I’m sure you will too.

  3. Elena says:

    Oh I’m so sorry you didn’t like it. I somehow struggle every time a blogger doesn’t like a book I adored and kind of try to make it up for it (as if I had written it!).

    I can see your problems with Life After Life and to each her own. I like that kind of structure, it works for me, so it wasn’t a problem, I just connected with Ursula – I’d dare say even more than – if it’d been a normal, lineal narration.

    I hope you don’t give up Atkinson, she’s a great writer and provides some very interesting insights when it comes to female main characters and women’s role in history related to literature.

    1. Jackie says:

      Elena, Thanks for coming over here to support Atkinson. I can see why lots of people love this book, but I’m afraid I prefer books more rooted in reality. Atkinson’s writing appears to be improving all the time. Maybe next time I’ll fall in love with her work. *fingers crossed*

      1. Elena says:

        Maybe you’d like her Jackson Brodie series that although fragmented, are more rooted in reality.

        1. Jackie says:

          I thought When Will There Be Good News? was OK, but perhaps I’d enjoy the series more if I started at the beginning?

          1. Elena says:

            That was the first one I read and I loved it. Try Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will…. & Started Early, Took my Dog ;)

            I’ll be reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum, one of her earliest works, this month. Feel free to check it :D

  4. Sandy says:

    GAH!!! Well this one is high on my list, because the time travel and dying and coming back thing is completely my deal. I adored Lauren Oliver’s “Before I Fall” (which was the same deal sorta but YA), I adored The Post-Birthday World (one of my top books of all time) so while I am sad this book didn’t thrill you, you still have told me enough to assure me that I’m going to love it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I didn’t realise ‘Before I Fall’ had a similar structure – I guess I’ll be staying away from that one now! I suspect you’ll love this one – enjoy!

  5. Kate says:

    Hi jackie – I also have just finished Life after Life and really enjoyed it. But I also really liked Post Birthday World too! I am a big fan of Kate Atkinson and would highly recommend her first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum for a great read. I really like the Jackson Brodie Series but do think the best ones are her earlier ones in this series. I have put Honour on my list of must reads though, so thank you for your review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kate, Thanks for recommending ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. I may try it at some point :-)

  6. Kathleen says:

    I’m sad to hear you didn’t enjoy it. This book has been getting so much buzz and I’ve been very excited to read it. I’m thinking it can sit a little longer on the too be read pile now…

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, This is definitely the buzz book of the year so far. Unfortunately we can’t all like the same things :-(

  7. I think I have mentioned this before but I LOVE Kate Atkinson’s books… with the exception of her Jackson Brodie series (even if it is her most popular!). So, I will undoubtedly give this a try at some point… I really like how she pushes the envelope and doesn’t write conventional fiction. I would highly recommend you try Emotionally Weird. I read it a few years back and it was excellent (but not so experimental).

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, It is interesting to know you didn’t enjoy her Brodie books. Perhaps I’m just reading the wrong ones? I look forward to seeing what you think of this one, but the fact her other books polarise different people is a good sign I may like another of hers.

  8. I can see why you might have disliked it, I think for those who don’t like the format at the start it’s a bit of a shame the stop/start element is so front-loaded, towards the end the lives get much, much more detailed with adult cares and concerns and I can see you loving the WWII-era sequences – if you didn’t have to read the earlier episodic chapters to get to them. Atkinson’s next book might well be a companion to this but without the back-and-forth style and time jumping so it might be a much better fit for your tastes.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I didn’t realise that her next book would be a companion piece. I can’t say I’m that excited about trying it, but I may well have a look at one of her older books.

  9. David says:

    Interesting that you say you thought the book began well with the killing of Hitler, Jackie. For me (it surely isn’t giving much away to say that Hitler crops up again in the book) that was one step too far into fantasy (albeit a logical one) – I preferred the smaller scale ‘what ifs’ – and I wasn’t entirely sure about the way it ended either.

    The deaths do come rather thick and fast at first (especially the influenza ones!) and it becomes almost funny, but I actually thought that ended up working well. What impressed me most was that the book never felt gimmicky and I DID connect with Ursula. In fact I thought all the characters were very well drawn.

    Okay, so the structure isn’t the most original in the world (you mention Shriver, ‘Groundhog Day’ is another obvious example, and anyone who has watched much sci-fi telly will be familiar with the idea) and, as Priscilla mentions above, the Blitz sections were reminiscent of ‘The Night Watch’, but I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Life After Life’ (I did keep thinking it should have been titled ‘And So On’ which became almost like a catchphrase in the book) and would give it 4 stars. Not likely to be one of my books of the year, just a really good read.
    Terrible cover though.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I guess I do prefer more relastic ‘what ifs’ (for example in ‘The Death of Grass’ – what happens if all our grass died?) but I thought the concept of killing Hitler was good. I don’t know how this book ends (and I am curious now!) but a part of me wonders if someone else would just step up to take his place and nothing would change.

      It is reassuring to know that you also found the number of deaths amusing. I found they grated on me after a while, but perhaps I stopped just before they slowed down?

      Glad you enjoyed this one more than me!

  10. JoAnn says:

    It’s so disappointing when the “it” book doesn’t work for you. I’m on the library hold list (and likely to remain there for quite some time), but I’ll be curious to see if structure will be an issue. Can’t think of anything I’ve read that’s similar.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, Sorry your library hold list is so long. If you haven’t read anything like this before hopefully the structure will be a wonderful novelty for you – enjoy!

  11. Caite says:

    Although I have enjoyed several of Atkinson’s books, but the premise of this does not grab me.

  12. Jenners says:

    Oh no!! I just loved this!! LOVED IT! I loved seeing how things changed and/or stayed the same. I looked forward to her trying again and again. I thought it was so inventive and interesting. Sorry it wasn’t for you!

  13. OH! We have the same thoughts on this one, but I only made it to page 50!!! I was extremely sad that I didn’t like it. I really wanted to, but couldn’t make myself read any more.

  14. OH! We have the same thoughts on this one, but I only made it to page 50!!! I was extremely sad that I didn’t like it. I really wanted to, but couldn’t make myself read any more.

  15. OH! We have the same thoughts on this one, but I only made it to page 50!!! I was extremely sad that I didn’t like it. I really wanted to, but couldn’t make myself read any more.

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