What a delightful book, well-written, engaging and most importantly one that made me think and is without doubt one of my favourite reads of this year.
Ursula Todd was born on a snowy night in 1910 in England, a country which is on the edge of the huge change we know will follow. In the first version of Ursula’s life, she doesn’t make it through and dies before she takes her very first breath. but this is not the end, we get another version where Ursula lives. This unusual structure gives us so many versions of Ursula’s life, or lives, and boy when she’s not dying in various different ways, she does know how to live!
“Yes, Mrs Todd, a bonny bouncing baby girl.” Sylvie thought Dr Fellows might be over-egging the pudding with his alliteration. He was not one for bonhomie at the best of times. The health of his patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him.”
Ursula is just my type of character, down to earth, funny in a ‘quiet’ way.
He was born a politician.
No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.”
Even at the worst of times Ursula is never a moaner despite having echoes in her life of those times she has fallen into the black hole of death. As the reader of her life we understand what those echoes are memories of even if Ursula just has a vague feeling of unease.
“Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.”
Despite the unusual structure and the many deaths this book is a reflection of life for a child born into what could be viewed as idyllic family. A house called Fox Corner, a mother and father who love and laugh, siblings and opportunities for a life ahead. Of course there is also war on the horizon, not once but twice, the loves and losses and relationships with parents, siblings and friends which will wax and wane. In short Ursula’s life is a full one.
The setting for Ursula’s childhood is Buckinghamshire and even here we see progression from a a house which was once Ursula’s world, in the countryside will not remain that way for the duration of the story, or of course in this case stories. This is a book about how life never stands still. There is one character in particular who I loved but became far less sympathetically drawn as life progresses, where another more flamboyant one becomes softened by the turns her life takes. This quality of growing the characters, especially when their scenes are not set in chronological order is just one element of how exceptional Kate Atkinson’s writing is.
Ursula’s life during World War II is portrayed in vivid scenes, no reader will be able to forget the technicolour images that these imprint on your mind. In one of her lives Ursula lives in Berlin, so we also get to see the challenges how her counterpart in Germany faced too. The period set during the war, both in London and Germany made the book a special read, but on reflection it is the contrast between the cosy life at Fox Corner and the horror that she witnesses at this time of her life which makes the book feel so real. These contrasting scenes, as we follow Ursula as she faces hardships as well as happiness is what makes this book such a rich read.
Kate Atkinson doesn’t make it easy for herself, we have a whole cast of characters that have to keep up with the many deaths that befall Ursula too… even down to the dog who is drawn in detailed perfection to delight the reader. I said in my opening paragraph that it made me think, it did. As we all profound reads we all take our own experiences into the book and this reflection on life gave me an opportunity to look at my own life in a slightly different way.
“Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”
I was alternately delighted and amazed by this book, so if like me, you somehow didn’t get around to reading this book when it was published, I recommend you do so now. I’m off to buy A God in Ruins which features Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, a would-be poet.
Life After Life was my fifth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge; a sumptuous read that means that Ursula and those wonderfully drawn characters that accompany her through her lives are now part of my life too.