Book: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Narrator: Fenella Woolgar
BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, didn’t keep track!
Content Warnings: Medical trauma, murder, forced institutionalisation, vomit, pregnancy, addiction, animal death, anti-Semitism, toxic relationship, rape, abortion, suicide, domestic abuse, violence, death, war, drowning, child death, genocide, gun violence, bombing/explosions, blood, grief, death of a parent, fire/fire injury
Despite all my best intentions, I’m once again super behind on my reviews, this is actually a book that I read over the summer! I’m about three books behind in my reviews, so I’m going to try and get as many done as I can before the end of the year, but there’s a very good chance a couple may spill over into January! Anyway, I watched the BBC TV adaptation of Life After Life back in the Spring, and enjoyed it so I decided to read the book that it was based on over the summer. Sadly I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed the TV adaptation: I found the book quite bloated and overly long and the narrative a little stilted. It was a very interesting idea but I’m not sure Atkinson executed it as well as she could have done. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.
Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can – will she?
As I mentioned at the top of the review, and as is a frequently occurring issue for me with books, my biggest issue here was once again…… yup it’s our good old friend PACING! This is an incredibly slow paced book, not helped by the fact that due to the narrative conceit, we visit events in Ursula’s life several times over. At one point it definitely felt like the book was never going to make it past the Spanish Flu section (I mean I knew it did because I’d watched the show but that section really did feel endless whilst reading it!). It took me forever to really get into the story because it was moving forward at such a slow pace. It was also much longer than it really needed to be: it felt like Atkinson extended it several times beyond what felt like it would have been a natural end point because she just wanted to explore as many lives for Ursula as possible whether or not they really added to the story. As I said before, I watched the TV series first and it was clear from reading the book afterwards that they had cut quite large sections: like the extended bit where Ursula is living with Eva Braun (yes, that Eva Braun) in Germany. To be honest, I found that the sections that were unfamiliar to me from not being in the TV series didn’t really add much to the story, and just served to make it longer. I definitely think Atkinson could have used a little more editing and the book could have done with being a bit more streamlined before going to print!
The length of the overall book wasn’t helped by the fact that the chapters were also incredibly long-there were a couple of chapters that were over three hours long! I definitely find that with longer books, I really prefer them to have shorter chapters as it makes them quicker to get through for me. I would have liked it if some of the longer chapters had been divided into smaller chunks as I just think it would have made for more manageable reading.
The nature of the story obviously means that the book has to be repetitive, but I mainly found this a problem in the beginning, and to some extent in the WWII section, generally the middle section of the book moved along at a fairly good pace and we seemed to keep moving forward quite well with limited repetition of events.
I did find that the story was quite stilted, due to the nature of the concept, it didn’t really feel like a cohesive narrative, more like a series of vignettes of someone’s life loosely joined together. The way that the story jumped around in time, both within Ursula’s lives and from one life to the next didn’t really help with this as it meant that the story felt kind of all over the place and made it a little hard to follow in places as I couldn’t keep track of where we were in the timeline.
I also found that Ursula herself was rather bland as a character. It felt like she had very little agency & that everything was just happening to her, rather than her driving the narrative. She also just had very little personality: I could tell you hardly anything about what she was passionate about, what drove her etc. I was actually kind of surprised by this, because I did enjoy her character in the TV series, it definitely felt like she had passion and fire there. She did get better towards the end of the story where she’s actively trying to change things in her lives, but I still didn’t connect with her in the way I thought I would.
I did like the narrator, I think Fenella Woolgar did a terrific job and I probably would have been less engaged with the book if the narration hadn’t been as good as it was. I would definitely listen to more audiobooks read by her!
Sylvie was the character who seemed the most different from the book to the show for me, she came across as far less likeable in the book than the show, much harsher and less sympathetic, although I do admit I was intrigued by her as it’s clear she was married off very young and I wondered whether she’d had bigger dreams for herself. There were also some hints that she might have had the same ability as Ursula, so I wonder if Atkinson might explore that in a future book maybe?
I did find that there were far too many characters to keep track of: Ursula has a really big family and then there’s a myriad of other characters who come and go throughout her different lives, so it was difficult to keep track of who was who sometimes. I also felt like because there were so many characters, the character development for everyone, even Ursula, the main character suffered and Ursula’s family also felt like they were only very superficially drawn. It might have been beneficial if there had been a smaller cast of characters because then everyone might have been fleshed out a little more.
I did feel like they were all a little hard on Izzie, for all her flaws, she was always there for Ursula when she needed her, with no questions asked and I feel like that wasn’t exactly acknowledged much by anyone in the book, not even Ursula herself!
There’s a rape scene in the book that was quite brutal to read: luckily I was aware of it beforehand because I had watched the TV show, but I always find it difficult to read scenes like that, especially when I’m listening to an audiobook because things just feel a little more real to me when I listen to them vs when I’m reading words on a page, so just a prior warning for anyone who also struggles with that kind of content: it’s about 1.26 into the chapter Like A Fox In A Hole, and last until around 1.29 if you’d prefer to skip through that section.
Atkinson’s writing was fairly engaging, though I did get tired of some of the more repetitive phrases, such as “Darkness fell.” occurring every time Ursula died and got reincarnated, and though the snow falling was an effective image in the TV show, I began to dread its occurrence in the book just because it happened so many times!
I did have some logistical problems with the book, which is probably me overthinking things, but there were a few things I just wish that Atkinson had thought about more. For example, I did wonder if so many details of her life and the lives of those around her would stay the same throughout different lives? It definitely felt like her dying and being reincarnated should have changed more than it actually did, I expected more different outcomes due to the changes she made, but it felt like the same kinds of events would happen over and over again but just with a few tweaks? Like I fully expect that big world events like WWI and the Spanish Flu would happen in multiple lifetimes, but it felt odd that Ursula would end up in the same kind of job, meet the same people, do the same things just with slightly different outcomes in all her lives. It also seemed odd that her dying and being reborn had absolutely no effect on the people around her? Like her sister Pamela always has the same husband? Ursula always has the same siblings in every life? Pamela always has the same kids, both in number and gender (and calls them the same names)? It just felt like this constant cycle of death and rebirth should have had more of an impact on the outcomes for the people surrounding Ursula than it did.
I also would have liked to have known why this happened to Ursula? Like I guess in the grand scheme of things it’s not important, or needed for the plot and it didn’t lessen my experience of the reading the book, but I’m a curious person and would just have liked to have known why she in particular was the one out of her family who was able to do this.
I wish she’d have got hints that she was reliving her lives over and over earlier and started to change things more actively earlier on, I feel like that would have given her more agency in her own story than she ended up having.
Some of Ursula’s lives did feel a little overly grim, particularly in the chapter Like A Fox In A Hole where she basically lives through every tragic and brutal thing that could happen to a person all in the one life. I get the point that the author was trying to make: that because of the rape, many other aspects of her life go downhill and she makes some bad choices as a result of her trauma, but just as a reader, it felt a little too much all at once. This is another reason why I feel like shorter, more divided chapters would have worked better because they would have broken up some of the more traumatic parts of Ursula’s lives into shorter chunks so it seemed a little less brutal all at once.
The ending was so confusing? I think I get that the author was going for something ambiguous, and wanting to show that Ursula would continue her lives in the circular way that she always had, with everything always starting over again, but I feel like the book came to a more natural end after the chapter in 1967, and that the author continued it on past its natural endpoint because she had more ideas she wanted to throw in there! Some people may like more open endings, but I am not one of those people and it felt like the story less ended and more sort of stopped? Anyway, I would have preferred a more definitive end!
Overall, I liked the idea behind Life After Life, but I found the execution lacking. I feel like it would have benefitted from being shorter, more tightly edited and with less characters so that the ones that were there had more room for development. It’s a real shame, because I really enjoyed the TV show and had such high hopes for the book, but alas it was not meant to be for us!
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of The Librarian Spy, by Madeline Martin. I’m not sure whether that one will be up before the end of the year or not, as I’ll be taking my usual break from posting over Christmas and it depends how busy I am before I leave Australia as to whether I get to write up more reviews or not (especially as I still have to do notes for that one!).
This is my last post before Christmas, so Merry Christmas to all who celebrate and I hope everyone has a great holiday, however you’re spending it! I will be back next week with my final Top Ten Tuesday of 2022, end of year wrap up posts and potentially some reviews if I find the time to write them.
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