Van has finished reading…Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

18 Dec

I doubt there’s a person alive who hasn’t wondered how different things could’ve been if only they’d turned left instead of right, caught the train they’d missed, turned down what looked like the dream job. What’s it trying to tell you when you get that tingle down the spine and a sense – a certain sense – that this has happened before and you somehow know what’s going to happen next? It’s telling Ursula Todd that she really has been there before and that things aren’t going to change unless she makes them.

It’s a deceptively simple premise: Take a single life and start it over each time it ends, adjusting one thing or another on each pass. Looked at in that way, 600-odd pages might seem like a few too many. But what Kate Atkinson brings to those 600-odd pages carries no fat. What’s fascinating about it, and I think what makes it work so well is the way each layer builds on the others, so that the characters do the same. At one point Ursula explains that time is like a palimpsest and as a reader I had the sense that it’s not just the action or the place but Ursula too. Though small things may change each time there is a larger understanding, almost a trust that she’ll be Ursula still in all her many incarnations.

Given her (repeated) birth in 1910 it’s not surprising that a large part of the novel covers the Second World War. ‘We must all bear witness,’ Miss Woolf says to Ursula and in the moment I read those words it struck me that it’s an exhortation not just to her but to us as readers, and indeed writers too. They are compelling chapters that cover this period, devastating and fascinating, dreadful and yet somehow hopeful too. Like other books I’ve read on this period this year (Crooked Heart; Early One Morning) they don’t approach the war as a thing in itself, an occurrence outside of life but as what it was: minutes and hours, days and weeks, months, years of people living and dying. It needs no embellishment; the simple act of bearing witness to these events is its power.

It’s a very English book, which is to say it’s a very English cast – could indeed be a book about being English. Through the incarnations I grew to dislike Sylvie, Ursula’s mother (except for one moment of fierceness in which it was possible to love her), and grew to admire Izzie, Ursula’s Aunt. Izzie is that relentless forward-facing spirit embodied, with pros and cons aplenty. Ursula’s father, Hugh, I also grew to admire. His gradual softening, almost unfurling to emotional honesty was touching.

I get wary around books that saw a lot of hype that the experience won’t meet the expectation. The difference with this one appears to be that it’s almost entirely reader-driven hype, and the experience most definitely does meet the expectation. By the end I was wishing for more pages.

Life After Life was published by Black Swan in 2013 ISBN:9780552776639

You can find Kate at her website,


2 Responses to “Van has finished reading…Life After Life by Kate Atkinson”


  1. Van’s top five reads in 2015 | vanisreading - 07/01/2016

    […] a little further) but life is too short to try and get down to a top 3. When I’m ruling out Life After Life, The Girl In The Red Coat, Galina Petrovna, The Good Son and Where’d You Go, Bernadette you’ll […]

  2. Van has finished reading…Mussolini’s Island by Sarah Day | vanisreading - 01/08/2017

    […] of Virginia Baily’s superb Early One Morning, and Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island is one of the quiet […]

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