Atkinson’s Life after Life Runs out of Breath

lifeafterlifeIt took three months for my name to get to the top of the library waiting list for Kate Atkinson‘s Life after Life.  Every day that elapsed brought another review in the blogosphere that lauded this novel so the expectation of the delight awaiting me went up a few notches each week.  Which made the disappointment of the actual experience of reading it all the more acute.

So disappointed was I by this novel, that I never got further than half way through. It now has the dubious honour of being the only novel I Did Not Finish this year.

I’ve always enjoyed Atkinson in the past so what went wrong this time?

The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

We’ve all been tempted to play that ‘What If’ game haven’t we?. The one where you look back at your life and wonder what would have happened if only you’d made a different decision;  that you’d said yes when he declared undying love and you just gave him the cold shoulder cos he was really the class nerd. Except years later he turned out to be a real dish.  Or if only you’d seized that chance to go backpacking around Asia for a few months instead of working in a cafe before heading off to university. If only you had that opportunity to wind back the clock and take the untravelled road.

Wistful thinking for most of us but in Atkinson’s novel, the central character Ursula Todd gets to do exactly that; to rewind the clock and to re-live her life many times over.  She’s born in a snowstorm in England in 1910 but dies at birth. Rewind the clock and she survives for a few years and then dies again when she falls off the roof of her house.

It’s an interesting basis for a story and it moves along quite rapidly, Atkinson proving once again what a good storyteller she is. But – and it was a big BUT for me – the cleverness of the idea of a death/life repeating cycle quickly palled. It actually became tedious especially when the content in between wasn’t particularly interesting. By the time the child is 5 she has died at least four times, during which time  World War 1 has come and gone, an event dealt with in an unbelievable cursory fashion: Ursula’s dad goes off to war, her mother starts knitting socks for the war effort, then whoosh, the  war is over.  It’s not enough to counterbalance the number of twists in fate Atkinson introduces. Nor does this pace allow characters to be sufficiently developed to keep the attention.

The further I read, the more I felt that this was a book that was trying to hard to be clever. That she’d had this idea and was milking it for all it was worth but never really examining the most interesting aspect – what would you do differently if you had the chance to replay your life and take a different course.  Maybe if I’d read to the end I would have seen more of this aspect as Ursula became an adult but as a child she never made any life choices, her deaths seemed primarily the result of external forces outside her control. Which made the premise of the novel meaningless for me.

I realise I might be a lone voice in disliking this book. Many people seemed to have loved it and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t even longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.  Assuming it was nominated (not sure how you can discover that) maybe it didn’t make the list because the judges thought she had planted a seed of a good idea but never managed to get it to germinate.

It will not stop me reading her novels. I’ve enjoyed every one so far from Behind the Scenes of the Museum through to the Jackson Brodie series. Sorry Kate, this one didn’t do it for me.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 19, 2013, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I just finished Behinfd the Scenes at the Museum a month or so ago (I’m always behind) and enjoyed it with one or two reservations. Life After Life must have been very much NOT to your taste to not have finished. I am presently 250 pages into Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and am bored out of my mind but feel an obligation to finish it since I’ve already invested so much time in it.

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  2. This is all very helpful. I’ve been wavering between read or don’t read on this one…

    I also understand what you mean about heightened expectations. I am finally getting around to The Book Thief, which I know was a sensation when it came out 7 years ago. I started it with unreal expectations (especially with the New York Times quote on the cover that it is “life changing”). Well, I have 100 pages to go and I’m enjoying though not loving it (yet).

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    • The Book Thief is one I have picked up and put down int the bookshop many many times. In the end I decided I was getting led astray by all the hype rather than let my instincts about what I enjoy rule my decision. Life Changing is such a cliche ….

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  3. I think the book does come together as you get further through, Karen and I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it enough to get that far. I’ve just put it on one of my book group lists because I want to go back to it for a second bite and think about the early sections in the light of what you learn in the second half. It will also be interesting to see if I look at it differently in the light of the historical fiction course because as the book progresses she has some interesting things to say about the way in which important events can hang on the behaviour of a single human being.

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  4. God I hate it when an eagerly anticipated book doesn’t live up to expectations. I just gave up on Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunnant, only 70 pages into a not inexpensive hardback – which I’ll probably pass on to my mum. I have to say the more reviews I see of Life after Life (even positive ones) the less I fancy it myself, I just don’t think it’s my kind of book.

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  5. So glad to read your review. Maybe I will post mine today. Started weeks ago and haven’t finished. I think I understand your frustration. Once one shifts one’s thinking from narrative to author (how clever she is), it’s hard to return the focus to the story. Once one becomes irritated, it’s hard to become entranced again.

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    • some reviews I find are like that – I’ve been trying to write one about Heat and Dust for about 2 months now and not getting anywhere. Will be keen to see what you think of Atkinson

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  6. Sorry to hear that this one didn’t work for you. It really started to come together for me when Ursula is an adult living in London during the Blitz, and although the ending was somewhat ambiguous I think I understand what Atkinson was trying to do. It definitely didn’t end up being the book that I thought it was going to be–but I probably appreciated it that much more because of it, as it left me thinking and wondering for a long time after I finished it.

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    • I didn’t get that far. I kept wondering should I read on, maybe it will get better etc but I did that three times and it didn’t. I reckoned that if it hadn’t grabbed me by that time (well over the 100 page mark) then it wasn’t going to. Too bad she left it so late to make it come together

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