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Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

The synopsis to Life After Life by Kate Atkinson reads:

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact, an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

If you’ve read Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, you may consider that plot sounds familiar, but there, the similarity ends. Where Matt Haig’s novel became all too predictable for my liking, and its ultimate message even a tad trite (apologies to anyone who loves Matt’s book, and clearly millions do), Kate Atkinson’s plot soars like a kestrel in full flight, leaving the reader never entirely sure where it’s going next.

And Life After Life is so beautifully written. It has all the hallmarks of Atkinson’s inimitable style – infectious humour; vivid descriptions of family life; authentic characterisation, not just of her principle characters but of everyone who plays a role in their lives – enfolded in the grim realities of living in war-torn England in both World Wars.

The story’s main character is Ursula, or Little Bear as her father calls her. We follow Ursula’s hiccupped progress through life, meeting her family, the household staff, neighbours, relatives, and assorted characters along the way. Seemingly always a little on the outside of events, Ursula is a child carrying the weight of responsibility for the lives of her immediate family and household on her tiny shoulders, not to mention for her own mortality which is a slippery thing at best.

At times, her struggle, despite the fatal consequences of not quite getting it right each time, is narrated with impeccable straight-faced humour that had me laughing out loud.

This is quite a dense volume (almost 600 pages) whose timeline flits forward and back, and forward and back again, and it took me a few chapters to figure out what was going on but once I did, I found myself clock-watching at the end of a working day, eager for the hour when I could close my laptop with a clear conscience, and sink into my armchair, Life After Life in hand.

This is a difficult book to review without giving spoilers so I’m going to leave you with quite a hazy grasp on what the story is about and hopefully, a curiosity to read it for yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

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