I had a nerve-wracking couple of days toward the end of this week because this novel took me longer than a week to read. Normally Sunday afternoon rolls along and I am starting on the next book, but this past Sunday morning I was only two thirds of the way through the novel. And I spent Sunday preparing for a barbecue with friends so I didn’t have time to read at all.
It took a couple of evenings of dedicated reading and late nights reading by bedside light to finish this novel.
It’s not that it was a hard read; it was just longer than I realized going in. That’s one of the problems with a Kindle — you can’t immediately see and feel how long a book is.
Now I need to choose a quick read to make up for lost time. Hmm, what to choose? A Nicholas Sparks? I kid: his novels are overly long, and I’m not a fan. The last one I read, “Safe Haven” seemed to be full of words for their own sake, rather than advancing plot or character. There were a couple of pages where Sparks described two people setting a table for lunch. Maybe I missed the sexual tension that was supposed to charge their actions.
This week’s novel is “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson.
If you could see the future and you were in the prime of your life in Europe in the 1930s, what would you do?
Think on that one a little and “assassinate Hitler” might come to mind. Indeed, that’s just how this novel opens, with the female British protagonist shooting Hitler in a cafe, then she is shot herself.
The novel then doubles back on itself (oh boy, does it ever) to explore the story that led to this point.
The premise of “Life After Life”, by British author Kate Atkinson who already has four bestsellers under her belt, is that Ursula is endlessly reincarnated as herself, time after time, with each life eerily similar to the last but different in momentous ways.
She is born in a snowstorm in 1910, and in her first life she dies without taking a breath, strangled by the umbilical cord. She starts again, survives, and lives to five years old, when she drowns. And so on.
Yet Ursula Todd is not aware that this is what’s happening to her; at first she has just a strange sense of deja vu, feeling like she has seen things before.
It develops to an inexplicable sense of impending doom that she must prevent, and with each life her understanding of what is happening to her deepens. Finally, she sees all and knows what she has to do.
Ursula lives through the grimmest times in 20th century history, in London during the air raids, in Berlin as it falls to the Soviets, sometimes making it through the war, more often dying in tragic circumstances.
But for all this history, the novel is intensely personal. It’s about how Ursula fairs during the wars, how her family and friends cope. It’s incredibly satisfying to read, because just as soon as a favourite character is killed off, Ursula is reincarnated and given a chance to save them.
When it boils down to it, while Ursula is a self-declared patriot, her actions are to protect her idyllic childhood home and her dear family, as much as out of a broader sense of cosmic duty.
I wished that Atkinson had explored more deeply how the world would be different if Hitler had not become the Fuhrer. But that is a pretty big ask, and I should have known by the end that this was not her intent.
I’ve watched the movie “Groundhog Day”, and of course the comparison is legitimate. But I found “Groundhog Day” just extremely banal and frustrating.
“Life After Life” is just the opposite: it celebrates the ordinary as beautiful, and lets you appreciate every character for as long as they are part of Ursula’s story.