I have formed the theory that there are 3 types of Kate Atkinson fans – those who liked Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird but hate the Jackson Brodie books, those who love Jackson Brodie but think Atkinson’s other books are “too weird”, and those who love anything she writes and would probably pay for a hardback first edition of her grocery lists. Take the following review with a grain of salt, reader, because I am the latter type.
Life After Life is possibly my new favorite “weird” Kate Atkinson novel. (The jury in my brain is still out. It’s hard to top Human Croquet for Best Weird Novel. I’ll have to re-read it to be sure.) The premise of the book is – well, so I don’t have to say weird again, let’s say odd. The protagonist, Ursula, is born and dies again and again in the novel, and each time her life varies in length and quality as a result of either random chance or some decision she makes along the way. At certain points, Ursula seems to be presciently figuring out ways to prevent previous disasters – from stopping a neighbor who was murdered in a previous life from walking home with the murderer in a later one, to avoiding marrying a man who turns out to be an abuser in one pitiful previous life, to attempting to assassinate Hitler before World War II gets out of hand. She never seems to know why or how she knows she absolutely must take action, but she knows she must, and does. Usually, when she allows others or society to dictate her actions, her lives are brutish and short, but when she takes the bull by the horns, she tends to live longer and be happier.
You might like this book if you like historical fiction (WWII), stories about women who overcome oppression, stories that challenge social conventions, or stories that you have to piece together from various vignettes. In the end, it is impossible to piece together a coherent timeline of Ursula’s life, but you gain such a clear picture of her basic character and the time(s) she lived in that it doesn’t matter.
I can’t really come up with a true read-alike for this book. Others have compared the book (some not kindly) to the movie Groundhog Day, which seems accurate enough to me to not take it personally. Like Bill Murray’s character, Ursula is forced to do things over and over, each time hoping for a better outcome. I guess the most similar book I can think of is Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride – the time period is too late, but the sensation of not ever knowing who the character is or what she really has and hasn’t done is similar.