Fashion Book: Life After Life
Life after Life is the first novel I’ve read by Kate Atkinson, but I’ve no doubt it won’t be my last. At first, I was a little wary of the hype–the plot sounded gimmicky. Ursula Todd, born on a snowy night in England in 1911, lives many different lives. Not in a metaphorical sense, but in a very real sense. The book unwinds all of these lives in greater and greater detail, and we begin to understand that these are not lives running on parallel tracks, Sliding Doors-style, but rather they are lives lived on top of one another, like layers. Ursula doesn’t remember her past lives, but she does get strange premonitions and flashes every once in a while that set her apart from others.
Ursula is usually born in the same way, but it’s all the many ways she dies which are fascinating. The life of her middle-class English family is wonderfully drawn, characters that we become attached to in that way that only really good books can create. We love Ursula’s father Hugh and older sister Pammy as much as she does, want to dote on her younger brother Teddy, want to slap older brother Maurice, and laugh at youngest Jimmy’s jokes. Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is more and more of a mystery as the book goes on, and we find ourselves wanting to know more about her just as Ursula does.
Ursula’s life spans both World Wars, and Atkinson’s vivid descriptions of the wars and their effects on Europe are brilliantly and emotionally rendered. Though still a child during WWI, Ursula still experiences the sorrows of loss, and her many different experiences of WWII (some in Germany, some in London) are extremely intense. The wreckage, death, and destruction are astounding–and this is on the homefront, the lives of regular people who may as well be dead for all the suffering they go through every day.
It’s a heavy, long, and daunting book, but I’ve loved each and every page so far. I thought I would tire of Ursula’s lives, the way one gets a little restless watching Groundhog Day, but they’ve all been captivating. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy epic family historical dramas and vivid characters.
In two particular scenes in the book, Ursula finds a dress while shopping that she loves, “a yellow crepe de Chine tea dress, patterned with little black swallows.” This is just before the war, and in the first scene, she is “pleased with herself for resisting” buying it. However, in the next “life,” she “tried on the yellow crepe de Chine tea dress that she’d bought earlier that day in an eve-of-war spending spree on Kensington High Street.” In this particular incident, we see the ways in which the little details, the tiny decisions we make every day, can alter the patterns of our lives. In the first scene, Ursula doesn’t feel the confidence she feels in the second, leading to drastically different outcomes.
Here’s a recreation of that special outfit: