Rated Reads

Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

Rated: High

This is one of those books that got a LOT of hype up until and after its initial publication. I have to admit, if I hear a lot of hype about a book from a variety of sources, I feel compelled to check it out. In the case of Life After Life, it was kind of warranted, but then the end left me hanging and just plain annoyed.

In short, Ursula, the main character, is born on a snowy February day in 1910 and dies immediately because the cord is wrapped around her neck. But wait: if the doctor does make it through the snow in time, he cuts the cord and she lives. And readers get to find out what happens in this version of her life, as she grows up with her older brother and sister and is joined by a baby brother. But then life grows dangerous again and she dies at the seashore. But what if someone saves her from drowning and she gets to live on? Atkinson then provides us a version of Ursula’s life past the seashore, and she encounters various other dangerous circumstances, all of which lead her to death but then get alternate versions in which she survives and lives on.

So the premise is a fascinating one, and I found it fairly interesting to read. One drawback, however, to the book for much of it as it stops and starts, Ursula dying-and-not-dying, is that it’s harder to feel empathy for Ursula. The story arc is disrupted and changes so often that the flow of the book is damaged, and since Ursula dies so much and lives her life along so many different paths, we don’t really get to dive into her story or herself as much as we would in normal books. Therefore, it’s kind of hard to really care about what happens to her.

I was really grateful when the plot lines/ time lines really took off for a while and didn’t get disrupted by death. I could just dig into the story and stay a while. But all the while, I was really curious to know how the book would pull together, how Ursula’s story would “conclude,” and if there was some kind of “deeper meaning” to the whole story and the unusual construction. I was eager for the payoff. And it never came, at least not in my opinion. I found myself a bit angry for a few hours after I closed the book: 525 pages and a week of reading, and it never came together. There was no meaning, no end. Argggghhh.

Now, others might find themselves really enjoying the book despite my protestations and perhaps because of the strange setup and because they’re fans of Atkinson (and I didn’t really find myself a huge fan of Case Histories, either. Guess I should have taken that as a warning). I did find some interest in the ways she tied in the different time lines to each other, in the ways she gave little clues to Ursula herself about what was happening. But those should have led to something bigger, I felt, so I’m now just disappointed.

Rated: High, for eight uses of strong language, all within about 20 pages or less of each other toward the end of the book. There isn’t a whole lot of language in the book; there are some uses of mild and moderate language, but they’re just sprinkled throughout. So I was a bit taken aback by the cluster of f-words toward the end; by then I simply wasn’t expecting them anymore. Aside from the language, there are sex scenes but little detail, and one rape scene in which there is just a small amount of detail about what happens. There is violence, particularly because parts of the story are set in World War II and there are some details about bombings and bodies being blown up, etc., that could be a little discomfiting. However, the book might have just been a mild had it not been for those eight f-words.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 15 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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Life After Life
  • Life After Life
  • by Kate Atkinson
  • Rated: High
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: