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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Todd Family (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
6,4535021,033 (3.99)2 / 900
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, and lets out a lusty wail. As she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war. Does Ursula's apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny?… (more)
  1. 237
    The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (Yells, BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: These moving and thought-provoking novels portray characters whose lives are continually disrupted by time shifts -- in Life after Life, the protagonist repeatedly dies and comes back to life, while in The Time Traveler's Wife, the protagonist time-travels involuntarily.… (more)
  2. 100
    Replay by Ken Grimwood (fspyck, BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Life after Life and Replay feature characters who live multiple lives against their wills; the complications of dying and coming back to life form the core of each novel and create moving, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking situations.… (more)
  3. 114
    Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (JenMDB)
  4. 61
    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (sturlington)
    sturlington: Both have unusual narrative structures and explore the theme of reincarnation.
  5. 40
    A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Laura400)
  6. 20
    The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (rstaedter)
    rstaedter: A different concept, but nonetheless also brilliantly written and with the Blitz as backdrop.
  7. 20
    The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (fairyfeller, pan0ramix)
    fairyfeller: Explores the same concept of one person living the same over and over.
  8. 31
    The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (amysisson)
    amysisson: Both books examine decisions and moments that change the course of a life.
  9. 10
    Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (sturlington)
    sturlington: These are both interesting contemporary works of speculative fiction that play with time and structure.
  10. 10
    A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (bibliothequaire)
  11. 21
    Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (amysisson)
    amysisson: Both are about the unusual ways in which women may impact the tides of war
  12. 00
    Recursion: A Novel by Blake Crouch (rstaedter)
    rstaedter: Any explanation would be a spoiler for Crouch's novel.
  13. 11
    Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (shaunie, KayCliff)
  14. 44
    Blackout by Connie Willis (VenusofUrbino)
  15. 00
    The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt (kiwiflowa)
  16. 00
    Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner (Anonymous user)
    Anonymous user: Similar time in history. A story of 2 sisters during the Second World War.

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English (494)  Dutch (2)  Italian (2)  German (1)  Finnish (1)  Norwegian (1)  French (1)  All languages (502)
Showing 1-5 of 494 (next | show all)
As a book, this was exactly like playing a video game where you die constantly and have to keep going back to the last save point until you can do it right. For the first fifth of the book or so, the "save point" was actually just the start of the story, so I think I must have read about Ursula's birth an odd dozen times (plus a couple of extra times later in the book). In video games this usually leads to a sense of frustration (to say the least) and so it was at the beginning here, too. Especially when the child Ursula managed to get herself killed in some particularly stupid way, and forced another start over…

Once Ursula made it to adulthood though, the book got interesting. At this point the book really started to speculate about the question, "If there was something in your life that hadn't happened, or been different from what it was, how would it have changed the rest of your life?" I liked the way that, after being murdered by an abusive husband in one timeline, the "save point" wasn't the moment she met that man but the moment she was raped by her brother's friend years earlier – that rape having destroyed her self-confidence and, ultimately, leading her to allow herself to be seduced by this abuser. These timelines see her living through the London Blitz, the weeks in Berlin before the Soviets march through, again and again leading to her deaths. Once she manages to survive through to retirement age (interestingly, in a timeline that sees her spouseless and childless), it's like she's "won the game" and is able to start again with a better recollection of all the lives that have gone before.

That's the point where things get weird though, because she uses all that experience from her past lives to decide she should kill Hitler, which is a bit kitsch and a concept probably ruined for me by the Doctor Who episode "Let's Kill Hitler". And many other time-travel-themed works of fiction that have come up with the same idea. Anyway, she also decides she has to kill herself in the life she decides to do this, even though she was totally young enough to start studying German IN THAT LIFETIME. It irked me that the result of finishing a life "successfully" is that she starts to regard all the people around her as less real, I suppose.

I don't want to completely ruin the ending, but it was a bit disappointing, I thought.

Anyway. Evidently, it was a kind of experimental and strange book and I liked it – I was always motivated to keep reading it – even if I couldn't love it. I must say I wouldn't have read a straight historical novel that went through just one of those timelines, because I have read enough novels about bourgeois English people for the duration of my entire life and I usually find them pretty snoozeworthy, but this had enough of an original spin that I got into it. So all in all… good and readable but not brilliant. (Jan 2014) ( )
  Jayeless | May 27, 2020 |
Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is the first of a duo of novels, the second of which is A God In Ruins. Atkinson is best known for her Jackson Brodie series of detective novels and, even though I knew her to be praised as a superior writer, I was a little intrepid about approaching someone who most famous works are genre fiction.

I need not have worried, however: Life After Life begins with an epigraph from Friedrich Nietzsche about the eternal return, one of my favorite philosophers. Nietzsche's idea is not meant to be taken literally, of course - it is a thought experiment, an exercise to test one's attitude toward life and fate - but Atkinson does so, nonetheless.

At the center of the book, therefore, is Atkinson's protagonist, Ursula Todd, who has the mysterious ability, whenever she dies, to jump back to an earlier point in her life story and start over from there. She retains vague, almost instinctive memories of the negative things that have happened to her, allowing her to alter and change the future.

Along the way, we also meet a host of other characters: her stuffy, conventional mother Sylvie, her stolid father Hugh, her sweet and fertile sister Pamela, her obnoxious older brother Maurice, her younger brother and family darling Teddy, her wonderfully unconventional aunt Izzie, the Irish family servant Bridget, the cook Mrs. Glover, and would-be rapist, the American Howie Lansdowne III. There are also Ursula's various lovers and admirers, which vary depending on the timeline: the abusive husband Derek Oliphant, the married Admiral Crighton, local boy Fred Smith, and German suitors Jürgen Fuchs and Ralph. Ursula's greatest attraction, however, is reserved for the Jewish boy next door, Benjamin Cole.

Because this ability also represents a kind of time travel, Atkinson also works in the typical grand gesture of the ethical time traveler: to go back and kill Hitler before he can bring disaster on the world. As such, we see Ursula studying German, befriending Eva Braun, and ingratiating her way into a position where she can have access to Hitler.

Life After Life is an extraordinary novel thanks to its sophisticated writing style, its broad range of literary and cultural references, and its realistic and engaging portrayal of life in the first half of the twentieth century. What really makes it a great novel, though, is the difficult questions it leaves the reader to ponder. By avoiding the various deaths and problems, does Ursula ultimately lead a life that is more just? Does killing Hitler really stop the disaster to come? Particularly haunting in this respect is the way that, just beyond the margins of Atkinson's tale, is the specter of the Holocaust: Ursula's life after life exists in the shadow of this horrifying death after death after seemingly endless death... ( )
  vernaye | May 23, 2020 |
I was looking forward to reading LIFE AFTER LIFE. The book's description intrigued me; the rave reviews I took with a grain of salt, but hey, they were raves.

I generally have a low tolerance for continuing to read something that doesn't interest me, but I stayed with this one for a while. It's confusing at first, with the time jumps and a large cast of characters, but that was okay - finally figured it out.

Then the main character's life spiraled downward and I was starting to get a bad feeling about this... Her life improved (yay) but by then - nearly 60 percent through the book! - I gave up. Realized I wasn't emotionally invested in ANY of the characters and, in fact, the author deliberately keeps them at a distance from the reader.

It's the opposite of why I read, so I stopped. Kicking myself a bit for staying with it for such a long time, but I'll shake that off and move on. Big UGH from me. ( )
  MLHart | May 22, 2020 |
Based on the plot summary, I'd have passed over "Life After Life". The idea of being endlessly reborn into the same life sounds too much like the tedium of "Groundhog Day". I've also been avoiding all those World-War-II-is-Seventy books that want to turn this horrible period of Europe's history into a source of romantic nostalgia.

I bought "Life After Life" because Kate Atkinson wrote it and I've always enjoyed her books.

Even so, I was surprised at just how well written this book is. From the assassination attempt on the first page, the book grabbed my attention and didn't let go. I ended up stealing time so that I could listen to the fourteen hour audiobook over three days. Even then, I wanted it to go on longer.

"Life After Life" follows the many lives of Ursula Todd. They are all the same life, starting on the same day, in the same place, with the same family. The consequences of small differences in circumstances, in decisions made, in meeting kept or missed, ripple through these lives to change them in surprising, and sometimes tragic, ways. Some lives are distressingly short. Some are just distressing. One or two work out reasonably well for Ursula. In all these lives Ursula is Ursula. She has the same abilities and desires but she follows a different path and has to cope with different consequences.

As the lives went on, I became more and more attached to Ursula, wanting the best for her, hoping that her mysterious déja vu would help her avoid the pitfalls of her earlier lives. Slowly, it started to dawn on me that I was missing the point. Each of Ursula's lives is real. None of them is a rehearsal. Her life is not a video game where each replay allows her to get to learn something that will take her to a higher level, her life is an opportunity for her to embrace who she is and do the best she can with what she has. It seemed to me that Kate Atkinson has started with Nietzsche's imperative, "Become who you are" and added a very English middle-class code: "Needs must". Becoming who you are does not free you from the responsibility to do the best you can in the circumstances.

"Life After Life" is much more than a vehicle for a philosophical discussion. The people in it are real. As Ursula's lives pass you learn to care about her family, her friends and the people she works with so that it matters when bad things happen. I found myself in tears many times while reading this book. Kate Atkinson pulls no punches on the bad things that happen and bad things, often the same bad things, happen again and again. The main message seems to be: "Bad things will happen. What choice do you have other than to deal with them?" Or at least, that is the response that consistently makes Ursula, Ursula. Some of the people around constantly seek to avoid the consequences of bad things happening.

One of the main bad things that happens in World War II. There is no nostalgia for plucky Britain, standing alone against the Nazi menace, keeping calm and carrying on. Instead I got the most harrowing descriptions of the Blitz I have ever read. Kate Atkinson manages to convey the scale of the death and destruction, the relentlessness of the bombings, the defenselessness of the people and the personal cost of a "Needs must" approach. I also got to see the impact in Germany and to experience the fear of being in Berlin, knowing that the Russian Army was raping and murdering its way towards you.

The language, both dialogue and description, perfectly evokes the time, place and social class. The depth to which the people and their relationships are imagined and re-imagined is astonishing. I felt as if I knew these people better than the ones I work with every day.

This is a wonderful book. Yet I recommend you do not read it. Listen to it instead. The audiobook is narrated by the actress, Fenella Woolgar. She is the perfect choice for this. Her performance is faultless. She carried me through this book, helping me to focus and to hear the voices of the time.
( )
1 vote MikeFinnFiction | May 16, 2020 |
4.5 ( )
  gumnut25 | Apr 21, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 494 (next | show all)
I absolutley loved Life After Life. It's so brilliant and existential, and I really responded to all of the 'what ifs' and 'if onlys' that she plays with.
added by Sylak | editStylist [Issue 338], Emily Blunt (Oct 12, 2016)
Atkinson’s juggling a lot at once — and nimbly succeeds in keeping the novel from becoming confusing.
For the other extraordinary thing is that, despite the horrors, this is a warm and humane book. This is partly because the felt sense of life is so powerful and immediate. Whatever the setting, it has been thoroughly imagined. Most of the characters are agreeable. They speak well and often wittily. When, like Ursula’s eldest brother, Maurice, they are not likeable, they are treated in the spirit of comedy. The humour is rich. Once you have adapted yourself to the novel’s daring structure and accepted its premise that life is full of unexplored possibilities, the individual passages offer a succession of delights. A family saga? Yes, but a wonderful and rewarding variation on a familiar form.
This is, without doubt, Atkinson’s best novel since her prizewinning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and a serious step forwards to realising her ambition to write a contemporary version of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. A ferociously clever writer, she has recast her interest in mothers and daughters and the seemingly unimportant, quotidian details of life to produce a big, bold novel that is enthralling, entertaining and experimental. It is not perfect – the second half of the book, for example, could have done with one less dead end – but I would be astonished if it does not carry off at least one major prize.
Aficionados of Kate Atkinson's novels – this is the eighth – will tell you that she writes two sorts: the "literary" kind, exemplified by her Whitbread Prize-winning debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and the Jackson Brodie crime thrillers. In reality, the distinction is superfluous. Atkinson is a literary writer who likes experimenting with different forms, and her books appeal to a huge audience, full stop. However, for those still keen on these discriminations, Life After Life is one of the "literary" ones. As with the Brodies, Atkinson steers with a light touch, despite the grimness of the subject matter...The novels of Kate Atkinson habitually shuffle past and present, but Life After Life takes the shuffling to such extremes that the reader has to hold on to his hat. It's more than a storytelling device. Ursula and her therapist discuss theories of time. He tells her that it is circular, but she claims that it's a palimpsest. The writer has a further purpose. Elsewhere, Atkinson is quoted as saying: "I'm very interested in the moral path, doing the right thing." It's impossible not to be sympathetic toward Ursula, who yearns to save the people she loves and has been blessed – or cursed – with the ability to do it.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kate Atkinsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Woolgar, FenellaReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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What if some day or night a demon were to steal you after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you:'This life as you now live and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more"...Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him:"You are a god and never have I heard anything so divine.'

Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Everything changes and nothing remains still.

Plato, Cratylus
For Elissa
First words
A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.
"It's as if," he said to Ursula, "you walk into a room and your life ends but you keep on living."
"All those names," Teddy said, gazing at the Cenotaph. "All those lives. And now again. I think there is something wrong with the human race. It undermines everything one would like to believe in, don't you think?"

"No point in thinking," she said briskly, "you just have to get on with life." (She really was turning into Miss Woolf.) "We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try." (The transformation was complete.)

"What if we had a chance to do it again and again," Teddy said, "until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
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Book description
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? 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? Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
Haiku summary
birth, death, birth again/
mistakes erased, perfected/
can we change the world?
Born again, often
Kinda like a palimpsest
Does that explain life?
Ursula would die
To go on having birthdays
And she does, often

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