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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson How often have you ever thought to yourself – what if? What if we had moved – or not - to another place, would the tragedy that happened afterwards perhaps not have happened? What if? What if you’d married someone else – or not – what would have happened then? What if? What if you’d missed the plane that crashed? What if you hadn’t?

This is a mind game we all play – some more seriously than others. It can be a heart breaking exercise or just passing thoughts, not to be seriously considered.

Kate Atkinson has taken this and run with it in a way that only she can. Her new novel Life After Life is a brilliant book about What If? What if a baby was born and did not live. What if she lived but died in any number of situations in the years to come? If she had not lived what would the consequences have been for her parents, her siblings, those she would love in those years?

From the first page I was captivated – by the writing and by the premise, and the characters created by this very imaginative and masterful novelist. I was swept away into the lives of the Todd family – from before the First World War into the 1960’s – when Ursula has become the age of people she thought were old 25 years earlier. And it is not just the relatively inconsequential members of the Todd family that are the pawns in this What If? game. What if Adolf Hitler had not lived past 1930? What if?!

How often do we read about someone who has survived one disaster only to die in another – surviving 9/11 only to die in a tsunami – or to survive the Air India bombing only to die in a train wreck or a random shooting? I personally believe that when your time has come your time has come – it is simply fate whether you will die today or tomorrow or 50 years from now. It means there is a certain acceptance of what life brings to one, embracing the good and the bad equally.

Ursula Todd is at the centre of the story, and it is her fate really that moves us along. She is one of a large family – a nice ordinary family really, made extraordinary by how they are maneuvered by Kate Atkinson.

The brilliance of Life After Life is that Kate Atkinson just makes it all so much fun. She takes us through the good times and the not so good - both the First and Second World Wars, as the Todd family loses family members – or not.

It is during the Second World War, in London during the Blitz, that Ursula, ever pragmatic, decided that if this war was going to last forever she was going to use the time to read Proust. Only Kate Atkinson is wacky enough to throw that in so offhandedly and make this whole book such a delight to read.

It is also during the Blitz that Ursula says to her brother Teddy, “No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try to do our best. We can never get it just right, but we must try.” Teddy answers, “ What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful”? And wonderful it is – Life After Life is one of those delicious novels that just does get it all right – you fall in and never want to surface.

Ursula thinks of that time, many years later – if she had lived through it – she thinks “it was a long time ago now. And it was yesterday.”

We know Kate Atkinson for her novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, winner of the 1995 Whitbread Award, a book that is on my re-read list. She went on to create a private detective, Jackson Brodie, and a series of eccentric mystery novels before returning to what would be considered a more literary novel with Life After Life.

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