“I’m always so glad,’ Sylvie murmured, ‘that I don’t have to take a turn at being other people.’
‘You’re very good at being yourself,’ Ursula said, aware that it didn’t necessarily sound like a compliment.
‘Well, I’ve had years of practice.” (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson)
Life After Life can feel like a writer’s, or philosopher’s, experiment, a fictionalized expansion of Nietzsche’s question: what would happen if we were to live our lives over and over again? In the case of Ursula Todd, however, she doesn’t merely live the same life over, but is somehow granted the opportunity to make minor adjustments – to avoid certain horrors. While this construct allows Atkinson to create beautiful situations and explore all the possibilities of a character, it can seem frightfully meaningless for the majority of the book. The reader is forced into the question: What is the point of it all?
Yet I would advise sticking it out, and enjoying the prose along the way, because Atkinson does have some pretty serious claims to make at the end of the book – her point may be that there isn’t an overarching point to life at all. With a premise similar to that of Groundhog’s day, albeit on a larger scale, its easy to worry that Atkinson will fall into the familiar allegory of having her protagonist relive her life until she ‘gets it right’. But Atkinson is far to subtle to fall into this literary trap and ends up making a far more interesting claim: that participating in grand historic events is no more significant than living simply and as happily as possible – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to live at all.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 544 (audiobook- 15 hours, excellent quality)
Further Reading: I’ve never encountered a similar literary experiment before, but you might like other stories set in WWII England, such as The Book Thief or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.