Reed Books: Life After Life


Jess Reed, Staff Writer

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson surrounds the lives of Ursula, a girl born in 1910 England, and her many rebirths. As Ursula gets older, she dies in different ways, then falls back to birth again in 1910. This time, she avoids the specific instance that would mean her death, and life continues until another tragedy strikes.

One of the most impressive qualities of this ambitious novel is Atkinson’s ability to keep the reader emotionally invested in tragic events, even though we know the characters will be able to do it over again. In one life, when Ursula is sixteen, she is raped by her older brother’s friend in her own home and becomes pregnant. She runs to London to find her aunt, who takes her to get an abortion (illegal at the time). This causes her mother to hate her and push her away, and she struggles to continue living normally. In the next life, however, her brother’s friend happens to not be able to visit the family, and Ursula never meets him. The whole time that Ursula is going through the emotional trauma of rape and familial distance, the reader knows that she will not face this threat forever, and will be reborn and live a life without this torture – however, the reader is still affected by the events happening to Ursula. Atkinson keeps the novel fresh without giving the reader of feeling “cheated”; what happens to the characters really does happen to them, just not permanently. The rules remain the same throughout the novel, as well: when Ursula dies, for whatever reason, she is born as the same person in February of 1910. The reader can trust the writer while still being surprised at each turn of events.

The ending of the novel becomes more philosophical, and seems to end in a strange place. While it is not a bad ending by any means, it does leave the reader with a few questions about what the central plot of the book is actually about. Ursula tackles many different issues throughout her lives, no single one taking up the body of the book. The novel ends with Ursula reuniting with her little brother Teddy when he gets home from fighting in the second world war, then her birth scene once again. It seems a random spot to end the book – her journey will continue after this.

But that’s kind of the point.

Overall, Life After Life succeeds in an ambitious plot, with each character fleshed out to completion. The writing is strong and sweet, and the ending proves the same idea that the book has been making the whole time: Ursula will continue to live and die forever, even when the book is over.