What if you could live your life over and over, until you got it right? This intriguing premise informs Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life After Life, which begins with a woman named Ursula in November 1930, shooting Adolf Hitler. Flash backwards about twenty years, and Ursula is just being born in a quiet English town. She dies at birth. The narrative loops back a few hours earlier, again, we see Ursula being born, and this time, she survives. She lives a few years, then dies in an accident. She is born again, lives, and so on.
Unfortunately, the concept behind this novel is much more compelling than the novel itself. The story starts off slow — in order to establish Ursula’s unique situation, Atkinson gives her the unluckiest childhood ever — accidents and ailments befall her over and over again, only to have “darkness fall” over her, and loop us right back into that cold, snowy night in 1910 when she is born again. It is not so much unbelievable as it is predictable.
In a later scene, another character asks Ursula how she thought it would be like living your life over and over (look! clever meta moment!), and she responded that it sounded exhausting. On one hand, I do sympathize — Atkinson reveals how tired Ursula feels, as if she had “lived a hundred years.” On the other hand, reading about her string of reincarnations is wearying as well. There are moments I caught myself waiting for her to die, and I groaned when we returned to the moment of her birth — not again!
The story does pick up around the halfway mark, when Ursula herself becomes somewhat aware of her situation. She doesn’t completely understand it, but she does sense there’s something more going on than ordinary deja vu. Atkinson as well allows Ursula to live a bit longer each time, developing a bit more complexity and depth with each succeeding narrative. This, of course, is part of the conceit — the whole point of being able to live the same life over and over again is the ability to rectify your errors from the previous attempt. And despite Ursula’s limited understanding of her situation, she instinctively knows enough, for example, to discourage an overly aggressive man from kissing her the first time.
Unfortunately, this also diminishes much of the emotional impact. Each vignette is compelling, sometimes tragic, on its own, but knowing there’s the safety net of reincarnation made it difficult to care. At one point, when Ursula was trapped in an abusive relationship — a horrible situation, and one that would normally get me all worked up — all I could think was, how long until she dies in this life and starts again?
Worse, the narrative then suggests that Ursula is born over and over in order to fulfill a purpose, and until she accomplishes this purpose, she is doomed to keep repeating the cycle. The superhero/avenging angel twist is jarring, particularly after the quotidian nature of Ursula’s earlier experiences through her multiple lifetimes. I’ve suspended my disbelief throughout many of her lifetimes, as she learns each time and improves her next incarnation, but this just seemed not to fit. What began as Ursula’s very personal, private story shifted to a more public sphere, and to me, it felt tacked on. After all, and understandably, when the protagonist lives over and over again, how can you end it with a satisfying climax?
Life After Life has an interesting, and admittedly ambitious, premise. To be fair, I don’t know what else Atkinson could have done with the story that I would have liked better. Also to be fair, Atkinson is a talented writer, and even with the concerns I pointed out, I was compelled to keep reading. However, the story failed to live up to the promise of its concept.
Thank you to Random House Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.