The first time Ursula Todd is born, on a snowy winter night in England, 1910, she dies before she makes it out of the birth canal. Then the story starts over and Ursula is born again, only to die a few years later when she falls off a roof. She’s born yet again and subsequently dies in childhood from the Spanish flu.
Ursula is born over and over again, and along the way she makes different choices that prolong her life and send her down alternate paths. Ultimately, she and the reader arrive at World War II, which is at the heart of this novel, and a new round of opportunities for Ursula to live or die.
Once I got the hang of this unusual plot device, I became entranced with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Judging from the reviews I’ve read, readers either love or hate that Ursula has multiple lives and multiple deaths. In moments of deja vu, Ursula senses death is just around the corner and, somehow, she must do something different in order to stay alive.
There is a short opening scene in Life After Life that occurs before Ursula’s birth that is completely mystifying until many pages into the book, when you begin to understand Ursula’s lives could eventually lead to something big, to her being in the right place at the right time to prevent great suffering. As each death opens the door to a new life, Ursula begins to discover a moral purpose for her existence, one that requires great courage and sacrifice. In a sense, she lives each life more perfectly than the one before it.
We see, for example, that who you marry can make a difference in who you ultimately become, and it can change the course of your life entirely. I’m partial to fiction about World War II, and through Ursula’s many lives I saw her experience the war from different vantage points, all riveting and poignant. She has many second chances – wouldn’t we all like to have second chances? Watching Ursula inspired me to think about how I want to live my life. It made me want to make more courageous choices and not worry so much about the outcome.
This is one book that will stay with me. I look forward to reading more of Kate’s fiction.