Daily Archives: 07/20/2013

#20: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life is another book I picked after seeing it on many suggested reading lists.  Happily, I agree with these reviewers.  It’s disappointing when you don’t like a book after it’s been well reviewed.  It makes me create elaborate scenarios about what the reviewer’s life must be like that he or she thought this book was worth my time.

I enjoyed this book so much while I was reading it that I started recommending it to people before I was even halfway through.  This would be a great book club pick because there is so much to talk about.

The book has a simple plot.  Ursula is born  1910 to a wealthy English banker and his wife.  Every time Ursula dies, she goes back in time to the moment that caused her death and starts over.  

For those of us who play video games, she respawns at her last save point.

We don’t know why she does this.  I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening until the third time it happened, and then I reread the first two pages and realized that Ursula was on this planet to do something incredibly important.  Her life was rebooted over and over so she could get to a moment in time where something happened that changed everything.  What was this purpose?  What was she supposed to do?  How would she even know what to do this time?

For those of us who watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s similar to Cause and Effect, except Ursula doesn’t get to program the number three into herself.

She does start to have strong déjà vu which annoys her mother.  The family’s maid thinks Ursula has the second sight and takes the girl very seriously.  Ursula’s memories of things that haven’t happened get her sent to a psychiatrist who ends up being a strange ally.  Without her mother’s knowledge, her doctor talks to the girl about reincarnation and that what she’s experiencing can be explained.

Ursula continues to die and start over, die and start over, die and start over.

The book jumps around in time, giving us glimpses of things that will happen, or rather have happened in her future, but then all return to a past moment when something happened to her that set her on this path.

I found it a fantastic game, trying to figure out what would be the next thing that causes her to die and where she would start over to prevent it from happening this time around.

You Are a SharkDid you read the Choose Your Own Adventure series as a kid?  I loved those books.  Our library had a dedicated bookshelf in a corner and I’d sit in front of it reading book after book.  You’d get to a point where you had to make a choice.  If you chose A, you’d turn to page X.  If you chose B, you’d turn to page Y.  Each choice led to a different story, and not all of them ended in glory.  The best thing about the stories was that you knew there was a path that would eventually lead you to the right ending where you would win.

Like many kids, I’d use my finger to mark the page where I had to make a choice.  If I died because of that choice, I’d go back and make the other choice.  This became a crazy game of finger origami if there was a second choice after the first and a third after the second.  Some kids would fold down the pages, but I thought it would damage the book, so I’d keep cramming my fingers between the pages, probably damaging the spine.  When I’d get to a moment where I died, I’d keep going back to the last decision and start again.  Eventually I’d find the right path and the book would congratulate me for winning.  There were times when stories would overlap, so you’d pick choice A and it would eventually lead you to the same page as that another path would eventually get to.  Sometimes the choices would make one story, but other times they’d split again if you chose a different path.  I liked reading them over and over to see if different choices would still get me to the winning passage.  And if not, I’d simply slip back to my last finger bookmark to try again.

This is Ursula’s life.  Sometimes it’s an immediate change.  The first time she’s born the doctor doesn’t get there in time and she is strangled by the umbilical cord.  The next time the doctor did get there on time and cuts her free.  One time she slips out of a window trying to reach a toy.  The next time her sister comes in and helps her retrieve it.

I liked the paths that took longer.  There’s one story line in particular that takes years to get to her death.  Something happens to her that follows her until she’s a young adult and when she does finally die, she is whisked back in time to many, many years before.  When she relives this life, she of course reacts differently, and this new choice leads her to the same situations she had already lived, only this time she continues to make different choices that continue to affect her life.

The big question of the book is why she must continue to live?  What is her purpose?  What will she do and is it something that will save the entire world?  Will this be an alternate history or will something be introduced in the book that she stops so we have the world that we now know?

I watched her live and die over and over again, waiting for the choice that would lead up to her final earned death.  Once she died completely, then we’d know this was the moment that she was meant for.

And the ending of the book… oh the ending!  This is the part that I of course will not spoil, but it’s what I really want to talk about with someone else who has read the book!  Something completely changes and my first reaction was “Oh!  So THAT’S it!”  I put the book down, very happy with everything and wandered off to do whatever it was I was doing.  Five minutes went by and then I snapped my head up, realizing that there was still one path that was never explored.  Was Ursula’s life over?  Had she made the right choices and was the end of the book really the end?  Or could the book have gone on again over a lifetime?  

It’s maddening and wonderful and worth every single minute.