You know those moments when you say to yourself – or maybe even out loud – “If I could do that over again, I’d____” and then you fill in the blank with how you would relive that moment, do it better, gain a more advantageous outcome?
Imagine for a moment what it might be like, however, to have no say in the matter at all. Imagine that you are going back and back and back to relive your life, and you are barely aware of it? You don’t have Hermione Granger’s time-turner where you’ve absolute control over how far back you go. And you don’t have it to come back to where you are now after you’ve made your changes.
Imagine that your stillborn birth is changed on the second-go-around so that you now survive. A drowning when you are a little girl is reversed so that this time the artist on the beach sees you going under and dashes in to save you. A chance encounter with the Spanish flu which killed you before is held at bay because for some reason you know you must stop the maid from meeting up with her beau who is already infected with the virus and doesn’t know it. Imagine you know that somehow the new chancellor of Germany with the postage stamp mustache will inflict such horrors on his fellow man that the world will be forever changed because of him. Imagine you know you will see him in a cafe before he ever has a chance to do anything truly terrible.
Kate Atkinson’s brilliantly conceived Life After Life is the imagined life of Ursula Todd. She’s a girl who keeps reliving her life, almost as if she is being handed by Providence chance after chance after chance to alter the course of human history. Only the reader truly knows the full breadth of Ursula’s multi-layered existence. Because, of course, she can’t know everything, can she? Doc Brown in Back to the Future told us why. Remember this line, when Marty wants to tell Doc on the night he travels back in time that Doc is shot by the Libyans he stole from?
So our heroine, sometimes young, sometimes a teenager, sometimes an adult, keeps taking one step forward and five steps back, with strange inklings of things yet to come, inner nudges to avoid this, go after that, and all against the backdrop of the years leading up to and including World War II and the bombing of London.
Because I was on vacation and in a car for long periods, I “read” Life After Life via audio, something I rarely do. The recorded version, read by Finella Woolgar, is stunningly impacting. Ms. Woolgar aptly reads as narrator and dozens of other voices. You can see it all, every relived moment. If you’ve ever wanted to give audio books a try, I’d recommend this one.
Like all books that deal with World War II, the content can be be heavy. There are plenty of sad moments, but there are just as many subtly triumphant ones, especially when you, the reader, know — for example — that Ursula has just reinvented her life by a chance decision to rescue a dog during a London Blitz air raid.
I am always in awe of a writer who can invent a new way of telling a story. The premise of this one is so unique, and the writing is beautiful, even the most tragic parts.
And of course any book that makes you stop and deeply ponder, “What if that could really happen, and what if happened to me?” is a keeper. If language offends you, know that there are a few f-words here and there.
Here is the link to an excerpt on Goodreads.
And a few of my favorite quotes:
“There was always a second before the siren started when she was aware of a sound as yet unheard. It was like an echo, or rather the opposite of an echo. An echo came afterwards, but was there a word for what came before?”
“No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”
“Dr. Kellet himself wore a three-piece Harris tweed suit strung with a large gold fob watch. He smelled of cloves and pipe tobacco and had a twinkly look about him as if he were going to toast muffins or read a particularly good story to her, but instead he beamed at Ursula and said, “So, I hear you tried to kill your maid?” (Oh, that’s why I’m here, Ursula thought.)”
Next week, my review of The Book Thief, which I am nearly finished with and loving to the point of dreading the finishing…