I feel like I have a habit of recommending the hottest book of the moment, as if people don’t already know that they should go read Gone Girl or Where’d You Go, Bernadette. But sometimes the masses are correct and I am powerless to do anything but join in with the chorus. In this case, that means saying that Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is amazing and everyone should go read it.
In case you haven’t seen the many, many glowing reviews, Life After Life is about Ursula, a British girl born in the early 1900s who dies almost immediately. Except, then the story starts again and this time she lives. Over and over, the book skips ahead and then backs up again, with events playing out in different ways and alternate timelines spinning out into different futures that hinge on the smallest things. Now, this is not a time travel book–the point here is not whatever magic allows Ursula to do this, and she only has the barest sense that anything is going on. Rather, the point was wide range of possibilities that every life contains. Sometimes Ursula is alone and sad, other times she has family and friends around her. By the end of a possible timeline, things feel inevitable, but Atkinson immediately shows you how different Ursula’s life could be. And because of the way the book is structured, I felt a growing sense of hope as I read, like Ursula was slowly figuring things out and fighting an invisible battle for the best life possible for her and the people around her.
I’m afraid this makes the book sound heavier and more complicated than it is–it was really a joy to read. Ursula’s various outcomes don’t play out exactly in order, but it’s so carefully written that it is easy to follow. Major sections of the book take place during World War II, including some especially harrowing sequences during the London Blitz, but there is plenty of family drama and it doesn’t feel like a war story. It’s a long, dense book, but I was sorry when it ended because I wished I could spend more time with the characters. Just so, so good.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Intricate, contemplative, and hopeful.
You might also like: For World War II stories and complex structure, try The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Kate Atkinson’s other books, especially the Jackson Brodie mysteries, are also great. And I want to recommend Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, although the only thing they really have in common with Life After Life is being amazingly written.
I also want to note that another book with the same title also came out this year. The Life After Life that is not getting all the attention is by Jill McCorkle. I haven’t read it yet, but Jill McCorkle is a North Carolina author who I met years ago when she came to speak at the creative writing summer camp I attended. She was fun and sweet and voluntarily chose to spend time with a bunch of dorky teenagers attending a–let me say it again–creative writing summer camp. I also really enjoyed her earlier books, especially July 7th. So if anyone’s read her Life After Life (it is a really good title), let me know how it was, because I have a soft spot for her and feel a bit bad that her book is getting overshadowed.