Last night as I was passing out our upcoming book to my book club friends, one of the members announced to everyone how she just couldn't do it. She just couldn't finish Life After Life by Kate Atkinson because it was so-o-o confusing. She had tried reading the book and gave up at the one-third mark, returning it to the library. I smiled and told the group the opposite. Life After Life is not a book written in a linear fashion. If you like a story which starts at A and ends at Z, with an ordered march through the alphabet, this is not the book for you. But if, I told my friends, you understand that the main character, Ursula, keeps dying and starting over in her same life, then you can just relax and watch for the differences along the way.
Often, it seems, that lives turn on a dime when a certain event occurs and then life then spins off on a new trajectory, an uncharted path up to that point. When Ursula dies and returns to the exact same circumstances and time period as when she was first born, we see that small choices she makes along the way affect what happens next. One time she drowns, the next time she doesn't go in to the water. Another time a friend is murdered, the next time Ursula stands and talks to her causing the culprit to move on. Life is all about the decisions we make. But what if we all had a chance to remake those decisions to experience a different outcome?
Even as I was reading the book I found myself thinking about Kate Atkinson as a clever writer. She, in a sense, played with her reading audience by saying through Ursula's incarnations, that as an author she isn't bound by all the choices she originally made for her characters and she could go back and show us a whole new set of circumstances if just one thing were changed. I agree with my friend that is sounds confusing, but once I settled in, I found the book to be tremendously exciting and fascinating.
Just think about your own life for a minute. Think back to some critical decision that you made or didn't make and then spend a moment pondering what would have/could have happened had you chosen differently. I know a person who divorced her husband after 25+ because he was emotionally abusive. She realized that in the beginning of her relationship she never said "stop it" when he was abusive. When she tried after 25 years, it was too late. How would her life have been different had she made a different choice, stood up for herself sooner? Another friend was engaged to be married but decided to end it when her fiance said he was planning to teach English in a foreign country after the wedding. She didn't think that is what she wanted to do. But now she lives alone caring for an ailing mother wondering "what if." We all have made choices which determined our path and I'm sure I am not the only one who has regretted some of those decisions.
What Atkinson does in Life After Life is to try out different choices and the results vary, some are not necessarily better. Ursula isn't able to keep her father from dying, nor is she able to prevent WWII from happening. But along the way the reader is able to see a few different sides of history and appreciate the choices that got the characters to that point. It is tremendously exciting to see the same scene but written from a different point-of-view. One never knew what was going to happen next. There was no chance of figuring out the plot before everything shifted. What fun.
I am terribly sorry that my friend gave up on the book before she found the magic with in it. I encourage you to do the same. Read past your confusion and frustration. Let the story carry you along. Watch for shifts in the trajectories that occur as decisions and choices change.
I listened to the audiobook of Life After Life expertly read by Fenella Woolgar. She did a fabulous job not only with the British accents but also with the German words. I recommend this audiobook with no hesitation.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Hatchette Audio, 2013. The print version is 544 pages long.
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