Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur Books (a Little Brown imprint) - fiction/historical
Release date: April 2, 2013
You know how sometimes you love a book so much that when it comes to reviewing you're paralyzed with fear that you're not going to do the book justice? That's Life After Life, for me. I've thought about it enough that I've begun to think of my review drafts for Life After Life as The Review that Ate My Brains. So, to save myself from becoming a zombie, I've decided to salvage my reputation and life with Ye Olde Self-Interview. I apologize in advance for any inadvertent repetition. I worked on this off and on for weeks and I'm afraid I'm tired of editing, so it is what it is.
Of course, it works best if I'm actually interviewed by someone imaginary. Today, I'm going to be interviewed by a Renegade Zombie Killer.
Renegade Zombie Killer: Hi, and thank you for letting me interview you on the roof of a tall building so that I can spot potential danger before it's too late.
Bookfool: Hello. Could you maybe put down the guns and knives and . . . all those bullet holders?
RZK: Sure, but the protective armor stays. Let's get down to business. What's Life After Life about and do you have a Personal Escape and Attack Plan (PEAP) in case of zombie invasion?
BF: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is the story of Ursula Todd. Born on a snowy night in 1910, she promptly dies. And, then she's born again and lives. As Ursula continues to live and die, events change -- sometimes marginally, sometimes dramatically. Ursula is often able to remember enough from past lives to alter her future, preventing previous tragedies to herself and others from recurring. With her uncanny foresight, will it be possible for Ursula to change the fate of the world when she's able to get close enough to kill Hitler?
That was written in my own words but I have to throw in a link because I adore the description of Life After Life at Stylist.co.uk's "Top 10 Reads of March".
And, my PEAP for zombie invasion is to run like hell.
RZK: What did you enjoy most about Life After Life?
BF: Just about everything. The characterization is amazing, the literary references and occasional sentences in various foreign languages (not translated) challenge readers, the story is unique, the author did a good job of setting apart the various lives lived by Ursula with minor changes of perspective or timing to avoid too much repetition. I loved the fact that a large portion of the book was set during WWII -- a favorite time period -- and the way it made me think. You can't just disengage your brain and zip through Life After Life; it's a thinking book, yet Life After Life was one of the most thoroughly entertaining books I've read in a long time. I also love Kate Atkinson's sense of humor.
RZK: Have you read any other books by Kate Atkinson?
BF: No, Life After Life was my first. She was new to quite a few of my book club's members and many of them commented that Life After Life will not be their last (myself included).
RZK: What did you personally dislike?
BF: Nothing major. There was a point at which I briefly thought there were just a few too many Ursula Lives, but I do tend to fade at some point when reading longer novels. And one of Ursula's incarnations was filled with horror upon horror. I couldn't wait for that life to end. Life After Life has an open ending and I didn't mind that at all. I liked the way my mind keep ticking over like a warm engine, when the book ended.
RZK: Can you give me an example of her sense of humor with a little set-up?
BF: Of course. There's a certain major historical event (one I'm sure everyone's familiar with) that leads to the deaths of a number of people in the book -- not just Ursula, but people Ursula loves -- and in several lifetimes in a row she fails to stop Bridget, the young lady who brings about the events that cause the local deaths. Also, each time Ursula dies, there's some reference to darkness falling or something like a bat raising its wings -- something definitive to let you know that death has occurred. This is a passage in which Ursula dies after failing to stop Bridget from setting the deadly events in motion for the third time:
"Oh, the silly girl just tripped," Mrs. Glover said. "You know how clumsy she is. Well, anyway," she said with some satisfaction, "that's put paid to your London high jinks."
"Not so," Bridget said stoutly. "I'm not missing this day for anything. Come on, Clarence. Give me your arm. I can hobble.
Darkness, and so on.
~p. 111I actually laughed out loud when I read that passage, not only because it was surprising that Bridget still went to London but it was so funny the way Atkinson threw out that last line to say, "Yes, yes, dead again."
RZK: What did one of the women in your Face to Face book club say she thought the book should have been called and why?
BF: She thought the book should have been entitled Life After Life After Life After Life because the title tends to make people think it's about an afterlife rather than the same life relived (there were nods all around, to that statement). I had a fleeting thought that Life Upon Life might have been a better title, although I didn't say that aloud. Regardless, going into the reading knowing that Ursula's life is a life relived repeatedly helps a bit, as the book can be confusing in the manner of The Time Traveler's Wife. You find yourself flipping back a lot to reorient yourself.
RZK: So, this leads to the negatives about the book.
BF: Yes, therein the most common complaints lie. All that shifting around between times did cause my fellow club members to use words such as "confusing", "chaotic" or "frustrating". I have to agree it could be confusing at times.
RZK: But, you loved it?
BF: I did.
RZK: What was the general consensus in your book club?
BF: We had a show of hands and the majority loved it. I should add that we had a fantastic turnout. This particular meeting was amazing because there was is so much to talk about in Life After Life that it was one of those noisy people-hollering-over-each-other meetings. I love that kind. The enthusiasm over Life After Life made for a really lively, fun, hilarious and, at times, thoughtful meeting. I can't recall but I think we had 12 members show up. Advance Reader Copies were provided by Little Brown and almost everyone who managed to collect a book in time came to the meeting. 3 people didn't love the book. Those who weren't enthusiastic about it just didn't seem to see the purpose.
RZK: What was the purpose or theme?
BF: It's a "What if?" In this case, I think, (my wording) "What if everyone lived the same life over and over but just some people had distinctive enough memories from previous lifetimes to make changes?" In other words, what if those deja vu sensations or premonitions some people feel more strongly than others (and some don't sense at all) are due to the fact that we keep living the same life over again?
RZK: Does absolutely everyone have deja vu or premonitions like Ursula in Life After Life?
BF: That part's actually quite interesting and maybe a bit of a spoiler. It actually took me a few days to figure it out, after I finished the book and we'd discussed it.
********POTENTIAL SPOILER WARNING********* Highlight the following white text to see what I think.
I think the idea was that the book was designed to theorize about why most of us have deja vu at some time but some people have a stronger sense of past lives (and therefore a built-in warning system) than others. Reincarnation was brought up in our meeting, naturally. The idea is that everyone experiences it but in this case some are more aware of previous events than others. There are hints that other people are also able to make minor changes that impact Ursula's life; they just don't have such strong feelings that they appear freaky, as Ursula does. The last birth scene, I thought, was very telling.
RZK: Deja vu and premonitions are interesting topics that evolve naturally from discussion about Life After Life. How did that go at your book club?
BF: That part of the discussion was awesome. Almost everyone has a deja vu story to tell or can recall a vivid premonition and all the stories are absolutely fascinating.
RZK: Did anyone think the book had spiritual connotations?
BF: Just one person used the word "spiritual". I think the rest of us shook our heads but you could look at it that way, I suppose. Reincarnation came up and some people do believe premonitions are a spiritual thing.
I should also mention that my F2F club's members come from nicely varied religious backgrounds and birthplaces (at least one member was raised in another country). I'm so impressed with my group. They are sharp, open-minded people who will happily shout out their opinions, agree to disagree and leave smiling.
RZK: Cool. I'm glad they're not zombies. What are some aspects of the novel that even those who disliked Life After Life agreed that they loved?
BF: Even the people who didn't love it or felt baffled by its purpose didn't feel like it was a total waste of time because they loved the characters or thought the writing was thought-provoking/intelligent, and the WWII scenes were almost universally beloved. The author is obviously very learned but she doesn't treat the reader with condescension.
RZK: Any additional complaints that were mentioned?
BF: One person thought Ursula's lives were too repetitive. She also didn't like the fact that the book was open-ended and commented on her frustration over the fact that Life After Life doesn't have a distinctive beginning, middle and end. I think there were a couple nods to that. Of the 3 out of 12 who didn't love the book, there was a sense of not getting the point of it . . . that it just kept going, but why? What was the theme? What was the meaning of that open ending?
RZK: Tell us what your group advises about the reading of the book.
BF: Advice from my group: Orient yourself early on. 1910 is important to remember because if you know Ursula's birthdate (which never changes) you can figure out her age by subtracting. That's surprisingly crucial because her lives are often so different that you really need to be able to think back. What happened at this time or in this place that Ursula will try to prevent or feel compelled to change?
The "What if?" never goes away. Even in the end, when Ursula has declared that life is ****possible spoiler, hidden by white text, again **** not circular but a palimpsest, there is a scene that indicates that she'll keep scratching more layers onto that manuscript, possibly forever. Her mother's final scene, the changeable maybe-off, maybe-on end of an affair, and other little things offer hints that Ursula is not alone in this; she is simply more in tune with her past incarnations. That spoilery bit is about the open ending.
RZK: I'm out of questions, so I must advise you to build your Zombie-Proof Emergency Shelter and come up with a Personal Escape and Attack Plan, right away.
BF: Thank you, but I am amazingly lacking in paranoia, although I suspect we have more than a few zombies in Congress.
RZK: Did you hear that sound? Gotta run.
BF: *skitters out of the way and shouts "Thank you for interviewing me!"*
Summary comments on Life After Life:
Best. Discussion. Ever. I highly recommend Life After Life for group discussion. You will want to talk to someone about it, I promise. Most of our group loved it, although not everyone did. However, everyone had something to say. The worst-case book club scenario is always, "Everyone loves or hates the book and nobody has anything to say about it." We found that we didn't need pre-written discussion questions to generate conversation; discussion came about easily and organically.
I gave Life After Life a 5/5 at Goodreads.
Gushy thanks to Jin Yu at Little Brown for providing copies for my group to read and discuss.
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