Fans of Kate Atkinson will want to read her new novel, “ Life After Life.” Boldly, the plot is about reincarnation.
Specifically, it's a story about the reincarnation of a young British girl who comes of age between the two World Wars. The publicity surrounding this novel will make it a best seller, and Kate Atkinson's reputation as a solid talent might overcome any squeamishness readers might feel about the subject.
“Life After Life “ is the story of Ursula Todd, born again and again, living her life over and over. This is, after all, a story of reincarnation. For Ursula, death is not an option. She is born in England, at Fox Corner, in 1910. Too many times to remember, she dies. She is, in fact, stillborn, as her introduction in the novel. Each time she dies, which is frequently, a paragraph ends with the sentence “Darkness fell.” Then the next chapter introduces her again, with conditions slightly changed, alive and well. She remains unchanged through her childhood, managing to alter the circumstances slightly so that she doesn't die the same way again. With three brothers and an older sister, Ursula manages to live a more or less normal life, and eventually learns how to not fall off the roof or die of Spanish Influenza, as she does in earlier incarnations.
After many deaths, Ursula finally reaches adulthood, and the entire second half of the book is about her many lives lived in London during the Blitz.
Although Ursula experiences multiple lives, the sweep of history itself never changes. No matter how many times she moves to London, the same buildings are gutted and the same wall falls into the street and kills either her, her friends, or her fellow emergency workers. Neighbors that she waits with in air raid shelters become strangers in the next life, only this time they die. There's even a happy ending in one of her lives, restoring her favorite brother to life after his plane is shot down in a previous existence.
It might be fun to write this way: change one event slightly, and the future alters slightly. But by giving us so many iterations of the same life lived with the same people, it's almost as if Atkinson couldn't finish the story herself. With each new life, Ursula seems to gain a slightly stronger sense of premonition. After countless tries, she becomes someone with “second sight.” With all these abilities, wouldn't she be able to make her way through life with more determination? Shouldn't Ursula be able to come to grips with the same strangely detached mother, life after life? With all this experience, isn't there any way she could deal with her strangely violent brother? And why bother having a sub-plot of a child killer who somehow goes unnoticed to everyone except the reader?
Aside from showing bravery during the London Blitz, there isn't much of Ursula's personality to hold onto throughout the book. She is continually lonely in her lives, and always seems to long for something that she never has. After 529 pages, this is enough to give reincarnation a bad name.
What is the point of reincarnation, if not to develop into a complete, satisfied soul. What is the point of writing a novel that really never ends? When I finished this book, I longed to watch “Groundhog Day,” my favorite Bill Murray movie, about how to go about getting life right. Now there's a take on reincarnation. Go ahead and give this book a try, but you might not get drawn into it. It won't take very long to make the decision.