It 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.