Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life 

The past month or so was spent in starting and giving up on some books and doing some quick readings like a book of short stories by Indian writers (neither great nor bad) and a Marathi book. After cleansing my palate, so to speak, I picked up the voluminous Kate Atkinson novel Life After Life.

As the verses unfold and your soul suffers the long day,
and the twelve o’clock gloom spins the room,
you struggle on your way.
Well, don’t you sigh, don’t you cry,
lick the dust from your eye.

– “Life is a Long Song” Jethro Tull

Atkinson begins with one of my most favorite  Nietzsche quotes about a demon who sneaks up to you and tells you that this life is the one you’ll have over and over again, a countless number of times. If so, would you rejoice? Or would you be hopelessly defeated? Ursula Todd, Atkinson’s lovable protagonist, is thusly blessed (or cursed). Ursula is born on 11 February 1910 and dies at various times of her life, ranging from being a still-born to suicide. Every time she dies, she is born again, and again. Unfortunately, she is born at a time when she has to go through one great duress after another – the flu pandemic of 1918, the two World Wars, the London Blitz, to name a few. But the little Ursula, who outlives some of these threats to her life, lives on and becomes a woman who doesn’t ever have a particularly easy life, and yet manages to be a heroic central character.

The first few chapters of the book, when the reader is just getting used to Ursula’s life and death cycle, are quite harrowing. We want her to live. We want her to experience life. And then when she does, Atkinson always keeps Ursula at the edge of a calamity, dangling death near her at every opportunity. There are times when Ursula’s death comes as a relief. By now, we know she’s going to come back.

The first quarter of the book, however, is as much about Ursula’s mother, Sylvie – a wonderful character on her own and worthy of her own book. As Ursula grows up, Sylvie is moved to the margins, often becoming more despondent and petulant. In fact, other than the drastic change in Sylvie’s character, most of Atkinson’s other characters are extremely well etched and likeable (even in their weirdness – like Maurice). The Todd family is exceptionally sweet, making you wish you could go over to Fox Corner one evening and have tea and cake with them. It is this creation of a lovely family that makes Ursula’s repetitive life an enjoyable read.

Atkinson is a very gifted writer. The novel is ambitious in its scope and, other than a particularly long section about the war towards the end, the novel is very entertaining. The author had me crying and laughing in a matter of pages. The Tarantino-esqe fantasy element, fortunately, is not a major episode in the book. Fantastically unbelievable, and unbelievably good – I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat.

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