Reincarnation. Rebirth. Chances. In Life After Life, the heroin, Ursula Todd, received these three phenomena. Over and over and over again.
In a plot similar to that of Groundhog Day – but without the comedic genius of Bill Murray – Kate Atkinson expertly explores the depth of a character. It seems that she rejected the fact that an author must choose a single path for his or her protagonist. Personal choices were key in each of Ursula’s life journeys, reminding us that even the smallest decision can alter the outcome of our lives. A lesson I learned years ago from Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger (another must-read).
We see Ursula, a girl coming of age in war-ravaged England during the World War II area, live many lives and take many different paths that inevitably lead to her demise. Though Ursula continued to find death through childhood illness, abuse, old age, bombs, and even suicide, she gathered valuable lessons along the way.
It sounds morbid, and in some ways it was, but Ursula’s character was inherently good. She spent much of her time (whether a particular path led her to live out her life in England, France, or Germany) brooding over Hitler’s appeal and whether she was right not to trust him. As the book progressed, she began to grasp her “gift” and use it to save others, from the small scale – her neighbor’s murder – to the large scale – I won’t spoil that one.
My only gripe would be that I felt some of her lives received an unnecessarily long amount of time while the ultimate climax – Ursula actually utilizing the knowledge that she had gathered – was glazed over at the end.
Overall, the effect of Atkinson’s novel was one of compassion. The bond between reader and protagonist is stronger than usual. You just want Ursula to get it right. But what is “right” anyway? Is Atkinson just trying to tell us that a life well-lived is simply a life lived?
“He [Hitler] was born a politician. No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.” – Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
“No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” – Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
“Become such as you are, having learned what that is.” – Kate Atkinson, Life After Life