Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: Life After Life

I'd had this book on my TBR shelf for a while, and was looking for a good time to read such a hyped - and mammoth! - novel. Therefore, why not summer vacation, right? 

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, follows the story of Ursula, born on a snowy winter's day in 1917, who dies shortly after birth... and then is reborn again, given another chance at life robbed so quickly. Then another, and another. In fact, every time Ursula dies, regardless of whether that point is at the age of 4 or 40, she gets another chance. Set in a time period that intersects with WWII, the choices Ursula makes impact a lot more than just her own life, and it's up to her to make those decisions, even if she's not entirely aware of the consequences... and even when she's made the same mistakes before.

I used to think that being immortal would suck, because you'd lose your friends and family and just outlive everything you cared about. But I'd like to revise that statement: living your life over and over and over again - in the manner of our narrator and main character - seems like it would kind of suck, too.

(Then again, that might also just be the time period talking. Books set in Europe with a focus in WWII probably have a solid stake in making it seem like life kind of sucks in general.)

Even when Ursula's life has gone fairly well, or successfully - she's lived past the age of 60, she's got a family to dote on, she's accomplish major goals - it starts all over again, regardless... which just begs the question, what is the purpose of her life anyways? If Ursula is slated to be reborn the very second of her death, then what exactly is the final goal of her living in the first place? What is she supposed to achieve?

Basically, it's like dying over and over in a video game that doesn't have any primary directive. In that special way, it definitely raised a couple of philosophical questions in myself, as to what I was trying to achieve in my own life. Nothing to make you rethink mortality, the inevitability of death and the inscrutability of life's purpose like a little light reading on a warm summer's day.

But actually: there are so many book lists out there touting titles that "will really make you think," and this is definitely one of them. I read this book a handful of weeks ago, actually, but there are still bits and pieces floating around in my head that I can call to mind almost immediately. Ursula didn't just live one life, but many, and thus transforms her into many different characters, with different views of the world, different friends, etc. It's a pretty awesome thing to watch how those transformations come about.

As an after-effect of Ursula's chronic habit of dying, the book is oftentimes told in a non-chronological order, in a manner of speaking. While this sometimes made it a little confusing to follow, it also lent it its uniquely circular flow and direction. The overall composition of it was very well-constructed - as this kind of narrative effect would probably cause confusion in most readers, but it managed a good cadence, for the most part - and I was really, really impressed as to how everything was laid out so gradually. I want to know how Atkinson managed it, because I've got to figure a wall full of index cards factored in somehow.

Final Verdict: Windy, plot-twisty, and almost meditative in its circular narrative, this is a good thinking book. Maybe not a beach read, but something that should definitely be sitting on your bedside table come Fall.

1 comment:

  1. I love Kate Atkinson's work and have considered reading this one. She certainly seems capable of complex structures. One book I come back to--I think because it's so puzzling yet appealing--is Emotionally Weird. I'm amazed by her breadth, though--Life After Life sounds really different from the few Atkinson books I've read.