Have you ever read a book that you had mixed feelings about when you read it but, when you finished it, you just couldn't get it out of your mind? In other words, it's the kind of novel you learned to appreciate even more after you've had time to process all the different questions about life the novel brings to the table. Kate Atkinson's novel Life After Life is one of these and her book asks many questions about life, family, and history.
I chose to read this book because it was recommended by an author I respect. It was one of his top choices. I thought there must be something really great about it and, after reading the premise of the book, I found that it interested me. I think the quote in the front of the book intrigued me the most:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest
loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it 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 more
divine." ~ Nietzsche
The novel is about Ursula Todd and how she repeats her life over and over, always hoping to get it right. While she isn't actually aware this is what she's doing, she does get 'feelings' or 'notions' about things. It is often labeled deja vu by those around her, while others think she may have 'the second sight' when, in fact, she's repeating her life over and tends to try to avoid the mistakes that ended her life (or someone else's) in her past life. She is always Ursula, always born to the same family, always on a snowy day in February 1910.
Much of the book surrounds World War II, but from different view points because she makes different choice and, therefore, takes a different path in each life. While some of her struggles haunt me, as the book clearly shows how one thing can change a person's life forever, it is the scenes during World War II that left the greatest impression on me. The writing about the war is superb and the descriptions are very vivid and realistic.
I also need to mention there is a good bit of humor in this book. Ursula has a family and the book often showcases the family dynamic. It's the kind of family where you recognize members of your own family sitting around the Todd family table. There are plenty of witty and sarcastic scenes between characters, as well as some truly endearing moments. While I find the notion of reincarnation unbelievable (but enjoyable),...I found that I wholeheartedly believed in the characters.
I'm not sure this book is for everyone. I noticed the ratings for it are 3.5 to 3.7 on some major book review sites, even though it's a national bestseller and an award winner. So, I'll say this,...if you're a person who needs a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, then this novel isn't for you. If you need everything wrapped up in a neat, little bow at the end of every book, you should skip this one. If, however, you're willing to try something a little different (and you should always be willing to try) and would like a story that leaves some things open for interpretation, give this one a chance. It IS a good story, it's just many stories about one life that never really ends.
After I was done with the novel, I found it wasn't done with me. I didn't intend to mull it over for as long as I have. In fact, I felt a little odd about it after I finished it. I knew the writing was good, I knew it had touched me, but I wasn't sure how I really felt about it until later when...someone would say something, or I would see something, and I found myself thinking about parts in the story. I still do.
I also wonder about what I would have done differently in my own life,...and what that says about me,...and what ripple effect it would have on other people's lives if I could go back and change just one moment. Would things turn out better? Would things turn out worse?
One of the characters in the book asks, "What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
I don't know. Would it?