Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I recently read the first of the Jackson Brodie novels, ‘Case Histories‘, by Kate Atkinson which I thought was pretty good but not truly amazing.   Several other bloggers left comments suggesting that I might prefer Atkinson’s other stand-alone novels, particularly ‘Behind The Scenes at the Museum’ and her most recent work, ‘Life After Life’, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  I am pleased to say that they were right!

The basic concept behind ‘Life After Life’ is sort of similar to the film ‘Groundhog Day’ but in a very different setting with less humorous consequences.   Born on a snowy day in February 1910 to a well-off family, Ursula Todd lives her life several times over.  However, unlike Phil Connors, Ursula is unaware of this although she often has feelings of déjà vu.  The book concentrates on several alternative versions of pivotal moments which take her life in very different directions.  In one life, she dies after falling off the roof of her house in a childhood accident.  In another life, she is stillborn, strangled by her umbilical cord.    In another life, she marries an abusive husband.  In another life, she lives in Germany where she befriends Eva Braun….and so on.

I noted that one of Atkinson’s main strengths in ‘Case Histories’ was how she weaved together the three different strands of the story. Despite the rapid chronological shifts in time, she is equally skilful at weaving together the different versions of Ursula’s life and the characters that feature in them.  There are some features which remain the same in all versions of Ursula’s life as well as hints of residue from her previous lives.  Retelling the story with the same characters but with subtle differences really shows off how inventive Atkinson has been in exploiting the main concept and the way she does it is very satisfying.  She also captures British middle-class life in the first half of the twentieth century brilliantly, especially in the wartime scenes.  

In spite of Hilary Mantel’s dominance over literary awards in recent months, I think ‘Life After Life’ could be a real contender for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.  I will definitely be searching out ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ but this week I will (finally!) be reading ‘NW’ by Zadie Smith and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel before the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Readings event on 4th June…


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26 responses to “Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

  1. Still need to read this! From reading the blurb, I had a strong feeling this was going to be a good one. Shame about the hideous front cover…


  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I am just waiting for it come out in paperback so that I can put it onto at least one of my reading group lists. I need to read it again and then have people to discuss it in detail with.


  3. I, too, am waiting for paperback. . .


  4. Thanks for this review! I was recently thinking about putting this on my to-read list, after seeing one author name it one of her 3 recommended books this year. I also look forward to hearing what you think of Bring Up the Bodies, another book I am wondering if I should read…


  5. just finished it and loved it. Thought it was well written and was one of those rare books that you wish would never end, despite the potentially repetetive nature of the story {do agree with the comment above re. the cover however}


  6. findingdaisies

    Ah – that’s very good to read. I loved her early work but felt she lost her voice in the Jackson Brodie novels. I could see the technical merit, but it felt like a commissioned soulless work, rather than an inspired one.


  7. Thanks for the review. I need to bump this one up the list. Considering that Sliding Doors is my favourite movie, I think Life After Life will be right up my alley.


  8. Cool! At a recent booksale I bought ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’, as well as some others by Atkinson and Zadie Smith, which I’m now even more looking forward to reading.

    Can’t wait for your Smith and Mantel reviews either!


  9. Atkinson is my favourite writer ever although I admit Case Histories is not nearly as good as the other Jackson Brodie novels.

    If you loved Life After Life, you’ll love Behind the Scenes, you can actually feel Ursula’s character haunting the pages even though it was written in 1995!


  10. I read ‘Case Histories’ and I thought the same as you – good but not amazing. I much preferred ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ though so after reading your review I think I’ll definitely put this book on my reading list for summer!


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  12. You can read another review of ” Life After Life” here


  13. Hands down this was one of the best books I’ve read in 2013. I also enjoyed they way Atkinson was able to handle the jolts back and forth from one time period to the next and between the different ‘versions’ of Ursula. By the end of the book, these shifts were so seamless they seemed like the logical next steps the narrative had to take. I saw Atkinson when she was at the Sydney Writer’s festival earlier this year. At the session I attended, she said she liked the character Teddy (from LAL) so much that she is now working on a new novel which features him as a main character.
    I’m sorry you didn’t like the Jackson Brodie novels. I really loved them, after demolishing the first one in a weekend I bulk ordered the rest online. Once they arrived at my door, I basically checked out of my life for a week while I got through them. However I am quite a tragic for a mystery/crime novel. I was sad to hear in a recent interview that Atkinson thought she was unlikely to write anymore.
    Great review thanks!


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  15. This has been sitting on my Amazon wish list for weeks, I’ve just been waiting for a push to go ahead and read it. Thanks! Great review.


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  17. Hi
    Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite authors. I recently finished reading this book and really enjoyed it. I agree that she is clever in weaving different strands of a story together and she definitely shows it in this story. I also liked the historical parts of the story too.



  18. Hi – I think Kate Atkinson is a wonderfully talented writer and does 3rd person limited perspective better than anyone. I was interested to see that you’d read Case Histories first. I think there’s quite a difference between her Jackson Brodie novels and her other work. I get the sense that with Jackson Brodie she’s trying to be more “popular” by writing in a crime based genre, whereas her other books are very literary. I don’t mean to sound condescending about the Jackson Brodie books though – I still think they’re brilliant, especially “Started Early, Took My Dog.”


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  25. I absolutely love this book! And your review! I just picked up A God in Ruins as well so I’m exciting to start reading that 🙂


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