Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: One of those rare times when a book with a strong literary style is also highly readable. Spanning 1910 to 1967 the book explores the small changes that potentially change the outcomes for the Todd family and particularly Ursula Todd who both dies before she is born and who goes on to live several remarkable outcomes. Innovative, profound but compulsively readable, this is a quite remarkable book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0385618670

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2013 Costa Novel Award shortlist

Spanning the period from just before World War One to the end of World War Two, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life tells the story of Ursula Todd. Or more accurately, it tells the potential stories of Ursula Todd. If you've seen the movie Sliding Doors then you will have some idea of the concept Atkinson explores; that of small changes in life leading to different outcomes, many of which lead to tragic endings but strangely the book manages to be a celebration of the spirit of Ursula and is often quite uplifting. It's a book that sounds like it is going to be much more confusing than it is though and the result is a very special book indeed. It's that rare thing of a book that has a strong literary style but which is also very readable.

It doesn't much matter what you have thought of any of Atkinson's previous works, and I confess to being something of a fan of her work, because this is quite unlike her other books. In fact, in a strange way of life imitating art, it feels more like a possible development from her first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson than anything that comes from her, excellent, Jackson Brodie series. And yet what does link the book to her other works is the warmth of the characters and the very humane understanding shot through with wit and compassion. She has created some terrific characters in and around the family that you cannot help but warm to.

The book jumps from time period to time period and must have been very highly plotted and structured in the writing. Atkinson's different outcomes for Ursula necessitate key plot points through which each alternative scenario must pass but quite remarkably it never feels like she is working to a plan. Each outcome, and the alternative lives are mixed together somewhat, feels organic and each gives the reader the impression that this is the way the author wanted it to be. So often with books that are as stylised as this one is, the reading experience can seem forced as the author slavishly has to work in the scheme but this avoids that trap and is compulsively readable. It does jump around a bit early on but give yourself an hour or so to get into it and you will be hooked.

Because of the structure and the conceit of the plot, it's also a book that pays more and more dividend as you read it such that by the end you are never quite sure what the story is and who is still alive in each version. The characters pass through events where you know other outcomes have happened and you are never sure if it will repeat or if an alternative scenario will play out. It's an incredibly difficult book to give a sense of quite how clever and beguiling the experience of reading it is. What Atkinson does so well is to downplay Ursula's awareness of these different lives. Yes, in some outcomes she has an almost sixth sense about things but Atkinson doesn't play up the magical element at work here and so the reader is always thinking that all outcomes are possible and what they are reading at the time is what really happened.

The book starts with an outcome that is surprising, and to some extent it is an exploration of destiny and the small decisions that need to take place to fulfil that outcome, but this is just one of the possible lives of Ursula. It's profound and innovative as well as being a terrific read, full of humour, insight into the human condition and also movingly sad. It really is a quite remarkable achievement.

Short listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013, time will tell if it can prevent a Mantel clean sweep, but for me, it certainly deserves to and I'll be surprised if this doesn't feature on other literary award lists this year. It's a book that will appeal to fans of works as wide ranging as say The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger to Sebastian Faulks's war novels. It is a very, very special book.

Our huge thanks to the kind people at Doubleday for sending us this wonderful book.

It's true that the book faces some strong competition for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013, notably from Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, NW by Zadie Smith, and Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Now watch one of the two I haven't mentioned win!

Buy Life After Life by Kate Atkinson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Life After Life by Kate Atkinson at Amazon.co.uk.


If you'd like an ebook but don't read on Kindle then the book is available from Sainsburys.

Buy Life After Life by Kate Atkinson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Life After Life by Kate Atkinson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Life After Life by Kate Atkinson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Life After Life by Kate Atkinson at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2013.

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