Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)

I had never read anything by Kate Atkinson, but our newspaper's literary section recently had a glowing review of the newly released Dutch edition of this novel, and that is always a tip-off for me to a good book.  Not only a book that is good enough to get translated, but also worth a two page review in the paper - those are the books I make an effort to seek out.  And I was lucky - the local library had a brand new copy of the original English version.

The novel starts in 1930, with the main character, Ursula, walking into a Munich coffee house and assassinating Hitler.  And then we are immediately transported to February 11, 1910, the day Ursula was born.  And we revisit that day again and again, as well as other significant periods and days in Ursula's life, flipping back and forth in time, and in each successive revisit to a certain time the author changes a few minor details that end up having a huge impact on the events, changing Ursula's life in significant ways, and even changing history.  The title of the book is to be taken literally: Ursula experiences different versions of her own life, one after another.

I've never read a novel written quite like this one, and it was highly disorienting at first.  It is not at all clear how aware Ursula is of her unconventional gift of infinite "do-overs" or how much control she herself has of the process.  But once the reader catches onto Atkinson's technique, we're off for a wildly entertaining ride through England, London, and Europe from 1910 to 1967, all seen through the different possible lives Ursula might have lived as well as through the beautifully wrought extended family, friends, and lovers that people the novel, as well as various historical figures.

I felt the best parts of the book were young Ursula's lovingly described childhood in a grand English country house, and the struggle for survival during her very dark days in London during the Blitz; the time she spent in Germany seemed more contrived and less vivid than the rest of the book.  But altogether this was a great read I'd highly recommend.

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