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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

book cover of Life After Life

As a book, this was exactly like playing a video game where you die constantly and have to keep going back to the last save point until you can do it right. For the first fifth of the book or so, the “save point” was actually just the start of the story, so I think I must have read about Ursula’s birth an odd dozen times (plus a couple of extra times later in the book). In video games this usually leads to a sense of frustration (to say the least) and so it was at the beginning here, too. Especially when the child Ursula managed to get herself killed in some particularly stupid way, and forced another start over…

Once Ursula made it to adulthood though, the book got interesting. At this point the book really started to speculate about the question, “If there was something in your life that hadn’t happened, or been different from what it was, how would it have changed the rest of your life?” I liked the way that, after being murdered by an abusive husband in one timeline, the “save point” wasn’t the moment she met that man but the moment she was raped by her brother’s friend years earlier – that rape having destroyed her self-confidence and, ultimately, leading her to allow herself to be seduced by this abuser. These timelines see her living through the London Blitz, the weeks in Berlin before the Soviets march through, again and again leading to her deaths. Once she manages to survive through to retirement age (interestingly, in a timeline that sees her spouseless and childless), it’s like she’s “won the game” and is able to start again with a better recollection of all the lives that have gone before.

That’s the point where things get weird though, because she uses all that experience from her past lives to decide she should kill Hitler, which is a bit kitsch and a concept probably ruined for me by the Doctor Who episode “Let’s Kill Hitler”. And many other time-travel-themed works of fiction that have come up with the same idea. Anyway, she also decides she has to kill herself in the life she decides to do this, even though she was totally young enough to start studying German IN THAT LIFETIME. It irked me that the result of finishing a life “successfully” is that she starts to regard all the people around her as less real, I suppose.

I don’t want to completely ruin the ending, but it was a bit disappointing, I thought.

Anyway. Evidently, it was a kind of experimental and strange book and I liked it – I was always motivated to keep reading it – even if I couldn’t love it. I must say I wouldn’t have read a straight historical novel that went through just one of those timelines, because I have read enough novels about bourgeois English people for the duration of my entire life and I usually find them pretty snoozeworthy, but this had enough of an original spin that I got into it. So all in all… good and readable but not brilliant.

★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.