Practice makes perfect?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Way back, when Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum was published and won prizes, I bought a copy – and struggled with it. Me and it didn’t gel back then, and I’ve not bothered reading any other books by Kate Atkinson since, until now.

I was taken the with idea of Life After Life though, and bought a copy of the hardback from the supermarket last year. It has sat there on the shelf waiting, despite everyone else reading and loving it, until now – as it is our book group’s choice for discussion next week. I needn’t have worried though, for I loved it, and I couldn’t wait until after book group to put some thoughts down.

I had worried before I started reading that Atkinson’s story of the many lives of Ursula Todd would be too much like a literary Groundhog Day, that there were no new tricks in the reliving one’s life game.   While I love that film, Life After Life has a very different time-looping mechanism to it.  In GHD, newsman Phil lived the same day again and again for around ten years until he became a better person and got his girl – but, he was aware of his previous days, so was able to use that experience to learn to play the piano, speak French etc and gradually improving himself. Most days he doesn’t die either.

That doesn’t happen in Ursula’s story – in each life she lives until she dies, then starts again at birth, unaware of her past lives except for an occasional sense of déjà vu at critical moments which enable her to do things differently.

What is fascinating is to see how the little changes can make big changes to her destiny.  The novel actually starts with her death in a very bold scenario that makes you wonder how she’d got there, and if that is the real ending.  I’m not going to tell you, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I refer to, if not, I’ll leave it to you to find out for yourself.

Ursula is born in a snowy February 1910, so her lives go from that day each time through the decades. In her very first life though, she dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord.  The next time she is born, she lives and her parents Sylvie and Hugh are bickering gently after the birth…

A fox appeared out of the shrubbery and crossed the lawn. ‘Oh, look,’ Sylvie Said. ‘How tame it seems, it must have grown used to the house being unoccupied.’
‘Let’s hope the local hunt isn’t following on its heels,’ Hugh said. ‘It’s a scrawny beast.’
‘It’s a vixen. She’s a nursing mother, you can see her teats.’
Hugh blinked at such blunt terminology falling from the lips of his recently virginal bride. (One presumed. One hoped.)
‘Look,’ Sylvie whispered. Two small cubs sprang out on to the grass and tumbled over each other in play. ‘Oh, they’re such handsome little creatures.’
‘Some might say vermin.’
‘Perhaps they see us as verminous,’ Sylvie said. ‘Fox Corner – that’s what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn’t that be the point?’
‘Really?’ Hugh said doubtfully. ‘It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it? It sounds like a children’s story. The House at Fox Corner.’
‘A little whimsy never hurt anyone.’
‘Strictly speaking though,’ Hugh said, ‘can a house be a corner? Isn’t it at one?’
So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.

Apart from illustrating the brittleness between Hugh and Sylvie, I chose this passage to quote, as it’s where they first see the fox.

The house, Fox Corner, is to remain a constant in Ursula’s lives, and the fox appears many times during her childhoods. In fact, the cover design of the paperback (right) is graced by the lovely creature.

I also like Hugh’s little joke – The House at Pooh Corner won’t be published until 1928.

I wondered too whether the author also chose the surname Todd as a nod to Beatrix Potter’s Mr Tod – although he wasn’t such a nice fox.

I loved the way that Atkinson finds so many different takes on Ursula’s birth, all the little changes are quite entertaining once we’ve got past her initial death.  However, we don’t get Ursula’s birth every time – the author only gives us the occasions when her life moves on and changes – so we get several different versions of key events, which then lead to totally different outcomes.  It’s very cleverly mapped out indeed.

We’re with Ursula right from the start, grieving each time she dies – again and again; sometimes mouthing out loud ‘Don’t do it!’ when we know that a life will turn bad if she does a particular thing, and cheering when her instincts lead her to do things differently, only for it to go bad again in another way. Will she ever manage to life the right life?

This gradual reveal of the final story reminded me of another novel in which the narrative is told out of time.  The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is actually told in reverse, but it’s only when we get back to the start of the story that we get the full picture.  With WWII playing a big part in both novels too, its a fair comparison.

I am so pleased that I’ve given Kate Atkinson another try, for in Life After Life, she is clearly an author at the top of her game, and I loved this book. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

23 thoughts on “Practice makes perfect?

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    10 out of 10! That’s some recommendation! Another ‘backwards’ book is “Time’s Arrow” by Martin Amis, where the main protagonist lives his life in reverse – and that has a very strong WW2 connection as well. How odd!

  2. Teresa says:

    I loved this and I am a fan of her other novels although I gather it didn’t please some of the Jackson Brodie fans. It’s very different from her other books but I think it’s one of her best.

  3. Alex says:

    I read this when it first came out and loved it but knew I would need to re-read it to mine it in anything like the detail it deserved. Fortunately it is on two of my three book group lists over the next couple of months so I have a real reason for a re-read.

  4. writingbolt says:

    I struggle to sum up my feelings in fewer words than my usual. But, this book somehow caught my radar as I myself am questioning my own existence due to deja vu moments in recent years. I’ve pondered writing such a story myself. But, the sheer weight of the subject matter…trying to break my thoughts into these similar yet different life paths…is enough to knock me unconscious. [Which might be what causes one to pass into another life.]

    You mention “Ground Hog Day”. That movie has haunted me since I saw it.

    I wonder what draws so many to WWII stories. Time and space shifts around the war…”The Chronicles of Narnia”…”Time’s Arrow”…etc. I personally am less inclined to pick up a story if it mentions war or military forces as a focus. I have been struggling to finish a story of my own that involves military forces as a sort of enemy looming in the background.

    I doubt it will score a 10 with me. But, I’ll keep it in mind when visiting the library. I am a terrible reader who has only recently picked up a series of mystery novels by a reputed female author (which I occasionally question). Again, stories built around war (and time travel) don’t usually maintain (or even earn) my interest. But, I am tempted to give this book a chance…if it may offer some insight into what I’ve been experiencing (which troubles me) lately.

  5. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    Hello Writingbolt, I try not to worry about ‘what if I had done ….’ as you can’t change the past in real life, so I try to tend to optimism. Kate Atkinson must have had a multiplicity of timelines mapped out to keep track of everything don’t you think? I wish I could explain deja vu – which is at the same time exciting and creepy – the scientist in me wants to rationalise it. However, in this novel, normally something positive comes directly from it …

    I must admit, I’m drawn to WWII stories, not WWI, not Vietnam, not other wars.I think it’s because my parents lived through the wars – although they were too young to fight, but they witnessed things and that resonates.

  6. Fleur in her World says:

    I’ve loved Kate Atkinson’s books in the past but this one worried me. Now though it’s getting to the point where so many (reliable) people have loved it that I am going to have to acquire a copy,

  7. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I had a very similar experience with Kate Atkinson — before I read Life after Life, I felt pretty sure that Kate Atkinson wasn’t for me, and then I was surprised to find that I utterly enjoyed the book. I’m planning to buy it at some point. The paperback edition is lovely!

  8. litlove says:

    Love your review! It’s just out in paperback and so finally I have a copy. I’m really looking forward to it only, ahem, I have one or two other things on the go right now! But your review certainly reminds me it’s in my pile and needs to be read.

  9. Victoria (Eve's Alexandria) says:

    I absolutely loved this too. I read it on Kindle though and it didn’t really work for me that way – the way the story unfolds made me want to keep jumping back to re-read sections of Ursula’s lives. I have heard that Atkinson is writing a sort of sequel about Ursula’s brother. Hope it’s true!

    Love your observation about the House on Pooh Corner and it struck me as one of the many little clues in the book that Ursula isn’t the only member of her family reliving her life over and over. Perhaps Hugh actually remembers the reference from his own future? There is also a moment where Sylvie is ready with the scissors to cut Ursula’s strangling cord at birth.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      A companion novel about Ted would be so wonderful – I wonder how it would work?Maybe as you suggest Ursula isn’t the only family member reliving her life – now I think about it, of course they all are in a way …

  10. urias42 says:

    I hadn’t heard of this one until just now, but a philosophical, time-loop, WWII novel sounds right up my alley. One more for the every growing book pile…

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