In the opening pages of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life there’s an index listing out different, non-linear time periods for the chapters. In typical fashion I skipped right past it and forty pages deep wondered if I’d ruined the experience for myself: the plot was jumping around so much I considered starting over again. Stubbornness prevailed and now having finished the book I think the dislocation is intentional, you’re meant to grab on to the narrative and ride out the threads of the story.
Set in between World War I and II, Ursula is born in rural England to a large family. From an early age other people observe that there’s something off about her. She can anticipate things that are going to happen and play with their outcomes. Her sixth sense and frequent bouts of déjà vu pull the story in several different directions as she matures and World War II kicks into gear. The plot will curl one direction and then reset, with Ursula taking the reins to try and set the course differently this time.
It took me halfway through to get my bearings and feel comfortable with the style, and only then did I realize the depth and brilliance of the book. The last third was some of the best writing and story-telling I’ve ever experienced. The repetition of passages throughout the different lives Ursula lives gives the reader their own sense of déjà vu and shows that the things that mean most to people stick with them regardless of personal choices. There are paths taken, some are completely catastrophic but most are simply average in their eventual heartbreak. But sometimes, if you get things perfectly right after lifetimes of practice, you can rearrange even the most absolute futures.
BRB, reading everything else Kate Atkinson has ever written.