“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” This plot micro-summary was enough to make me pick up this book. That and Kate Atkinson’s reputation. I had planned to read her first novel when it was released; then her second and third, but somehow I never managed to read any of them. I probably will now.
So I wondered, suppose you did get the chance to live your life again and again. How would you know that you were getting repeat chances? And how would you know when you finally got it right? And then what would happen? Atkinson manages to convincingly address these questions, but without letting the technical issues dominate an affecting story of an engaging and (necessarily) resilient protagonist living through two world wars. The story is about her inner life, her family life, and society during these unimaginably difficult times.
I don’t normally go for the sorts of book that attempt to situate a human drama within the wider sweep of history. (I did enjoy War and Peace, but that was mainly because everyone was so exotic and cosmopolitan.) In the author note for Life After Life on her website, Atkinson says that “there are few things more uncomfortable for the reader than to be constantly stumbling over the pathologically recondite research of an author.” She’s right — this is one thing that really turns me off a lot of fiction. (I think some people like it though. I suppose somebody has to read those books.)
Writing in the London Review of Books, Adam Mars-Jones was unimpressed by Life After Life. He seems to want Atkinson to take us into the technical details of the way the lives fit together in alternative timelines, as if he were reviewing The Matrix or Inception of some other such science-fiction confection (confiction?). He claims that Atkinson fails to see the enormity of her heroine’s situation, whereas I thought that this was exactly the point she tries to convey. In short, I think Mr Mars-Jones has missed the point of Life After Life. Still, as usual for the LRB, his review is well worth reading (but be warned that it is full of spoilers).
So I say: read this book. But to get full effect from the ending, which I found powerful and thought-provoking yet subtle, take my advice: Don’t read the table of contents.