Book Review: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Alternative histories and alternate universes have been staples of science fiction since there has been science fiction as a genre. Even serious historians have taken up the tropes of the sub-genre, calling it “counter-factual” history. Within the bounds of the allo-history (other history) sub-genre the two overriding pivot points of history are someone killing Hitler or the American South winning the American Civil War.

So it is with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Atkinson’s main character, Ursula Todd, tries to kill Hitler in November 1930. In another book the reader would then see how this event affected the larger world. But in Life After Life the reader is suddenly thrown back to 1910 and Ursula’s still birth. And then is told about her live birth.

It seems that Ursula Todd is a special person, able to re-live her life over and over again and be conscious of the alternative lives she could and did live all at the same time. For example, in one section of the book, Ursula is violently raped and left pregnant by the attack. In another version she manages to avoid the attack and in a third version of the same event Ursula actually flirts with her would-be attacker. This book is like some kind of very serious version of the movie, Groundhog Day.

However, the book is really less about alternative universes and time lines then it is about how the two World Wars and the changes to British society in the interwar years affect Ursula and her family. As the reader moves through the book, it becomes clearer that the whole “allo-history” theme is merely an overplayed gimmick. Life After Life would have been a perfectly fine (and much shorter) straight novel about an English middle-class family and their troubles and trials in the early and mid 20th century without the whole (rather silly) alternate history overlay.

Further, Atkinson is not telling the reader anything they do not already know: Life was very restrictive for women in Edwardian Britain; they had limited choices and lived powerless lives. War is awful and World War Two was the most awful of wars, with millions killed, wounded and otherwise hurt.

Fortunately, Atkinson writes with a good deal of wit, style and clarity. Never is the reader confused as to where Ursula is and what she is about at any place in the novel. But sadly the whole thing is really rather pointless. Life After Life is entertaining enough, but is not anything particularly new or groundbreaking.

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