A book with a tricky structure can sometimes seem a little too self-conscious. The style can get in the way of the story, and when that happens, the reader loses.
In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson has carried off the feat of creating a novel with a clever and unique structure, but not at the cost of the story. The novel is engaging, moving and enlightening.
Set near the end of World War II and through World War II, in a village in the UK, London and Germany, it is a story that explores time and what can happen in the future if an aspect of the present is changed. In Life After Life, small changes do not just prevent personal tragedy, but also disaster on a world scale.
The novel’s central character, Ursula, lives various lives from the time she is born into a well-off family living in a house called Fox Corner. Ursula lives various versions of her life, from her dramatic birth to her roles during wartime. In her various incarnations, Ursula’s character ranges from being naïve to heroic – itself a comment on personality and personal responsibility.
While I struggled with some of the tragedies that befell children in the various strands of the book, the depiction of the relentless bombing of London that even more confronting. Having lived for a time in London, I recognised the areas of which Atkinson wrote, and could imagine the indiscriminate nature in which residents were killed. In one particularly grisly scene, people were trapped in the basement of a house in which the water and sewerage pipes had been damaged.
Atkinson’s skill in crafting a clever, readable work of historical fiction might be a result of her method – in the afterword she writes of how she painstakingly researched the past in which the novel was based, then set to write a story as unencumbered as possible by this history. Later, she checked the facts to ensure they lined up with what she had written.
Life After Life is a powerful book about the ‘what ifs’ of life, and just how different things could be as a result of some minor tweaks. I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it.