‘Life After Life’ is a ‘revolving doors’ account of the life of Ursula Todd, her family and friends. The story is built around a small number of anchors: Ursula’s birth; Bridget catching Asian flu when she goes to watch the victory celebrations in London in 1918; Ursula’s brother’s friend’s attempt to rape her; the paedophile lurking in the village on the same day; Ursula going to Germany in the 1930s ; Ursula getting trapped in bomb wreckage in the Blitz. Kate explores a theme for several chapters, then brings us back to the anchor. Each chapter begins with a date, which is useful because the story is not told chronologically. Even so it might still have been confusing, but such is the skill of Kate Atkinson that I never got lost.
The story ranges from the beginning of the 2oth century until to after the 2nd World War, with a brief glimpse of Ursula’s retirement in 1967. It encompasses a wealth of historical detail, obviously researched very thoroughly. Never have I read about the horror of the Blitz in London in so much detail (although I did think Kate spent too long on this). Even more chilling was Ursula’s sojourn in Nazi Germany, attending Hitler rallies alongside Nazi sympathisers, and – without giving too much away – spending time with Eva Braun. However, in order to get the most out of this book, the reader did need to know the history of the 2oth century.
There was a huge number of characters, generally well-drawn, although the main character, Ursula, suffered from what I call ‘mc syndrome’, in that other characters were invariably seen through her eyes, with the result that Ursula herself seemed a bit bland. Yes, she was courageous and did not follow the social mores of the day, but I was surprised she capitulated so readily when in an abusive relationship. Other characters were more distinct and convincing: Maurice, the arrogant and selfish brother; Pam, the ‘jolly good egg’ of a sister; Teddy, the darling little brother; Admiral Crighton, the middle-aged roue. In these characters, Kate showed herself to be an excellent observer of detail. An example is when Pam refers to her youngest brother’s homosexuality and Ursula notes ‘the faintest trace of smugness, as if she were better able to cope with liberal views’.
The one that shone off the page, however, was Aunt Izzy, the black sheep of the family, selfish, egotistical, charming and fascinating. “Was there a particular reason for your visit, or have you merely come to annoy?” asked Ursula’s mother at one point. You hate her. You love her. You hate her again. There’s one in every family!
Would I recommend ‘Life After Life’ as an enjoyable and thought-provoking read? Yes, definitely. Would I recommend it to writers as something to learn from? Yes, for writing complex content without confusion, for defining most of the characters and for many of the descriptive passages, but I fear an epidemic of ‘revolving door’ novels. Kate Atkinson brought it off. I couldn’t have done.