Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Selecting appropriate summer reading material is always a tricky endeavour. While we desire something engrossing – and somewhat undemanding – to entertain us at the beach or pool, we also don’t want to waste our time reading poorly written smut or predictable mysteries. It’s that elusive balance between readability and weightiness that makes a novel the ideal summer read. The latest effort by Kate Atkinson – a British author best known for her popular detective novels featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie – manages this feat with aplomb. Life After Life is a sprawling, complex and staggeringly ambitious tale of the life of protagonist Ursula Todd who witnesses, and participates in, some of the most momentous events in the history of the 20th century. While recounting a very absorbing tale of her character’s existence, Atkinson probes how those small, often seemingly insignificant, decisions that we make on an hourly basis can have profound consequences.
Nonlinear storytelling, while hardly a novel enterprise, has become an increasingly popular narrative device of late; from television shows like Lost and Damages and pretty much every movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, we’ve become adept at following stories that start in the middle and jump back and forth before reaching a conclusion. In Life After Life Atkinson further complicates this approach by having her characters die repeatedly throughout the book, only to be resurrected in the following chapter; events are recounted from multiple perspectives and have wildly divergent outcomes when a small plot point or a decision made by a character is altered. Initially this narrative style is confusing, and somewhat off-putting as you don’t know who or what to believe, but after only a few chapters it becomes easier to follow and the book becomes increasingly difficult to put down. Atkinson also helpfully scatters short chapters throughout the book that are dated to orient the reader and provide context for what follows. Life After Life is as much about the act of writing and storytelling as it is a work of fiction; with such dramatic plot twists and reversals Atkinson powerfully demonstrates the supreme authority of an author to give and takeaway life, to rewrite an identical scene with an entirely different outcome. Here the complex decision making that an author endures when constructing a story is made visible to the reader, and the result is both eye opening as well as supremely entertaining.
From the very beginning of the novel when Ursula dies during birth when a snowstorm prevents a doctor from arriving in time only to have the event replayed in the following chapter after “darkness falls” with a different ending, the reader follows the course of Ursula’s life as she and those within her purview fall victim to a slew of accidents, illnesses and misfortune. Each iteration of Ursula’s life is haunted by her past demise; she carries with her a deep sense of foreboding and déjà vu. If this doesn’t sound quite like the uplifting summer read that you’re looking for, a sense of hope and optimism permeates the novel. Throughout it all Atkinson deftly handles all the time shifts, challenges to conventional notions of plausibility and expectations of the long-form story, and the result is something entirely unique. It’s a testament to Atkinson’s writing that Life After Life avoids succumbing to gimmick and instead is a page-turner until the very end.