Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

(Reagan Arthur, $27.99,  544 pages

Who is this author?

Kate Atkinson, who lives in Scotland, won the Whitbread (now called the Costa) Book of the Year Award for her first novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” and became a bestselling author who has more than one million copies of her books in print in the United States alone. Even the titles of her novels are intriguing, such as “Human Croquet,” “Emotionally Weird,” “When Will There Be Good News?”  and “Started Early, Took My Dog.” Her novel “Case Histories,” which featured private investigator Jackson Brodie, became a TV series. She also has written a story collection, “Not the End of the World.”

What is this book about?

When you start with a fascinating premise, you immediately hook the reader. And this book has one. Its heroine, Ursula Todd, is born in winter 1910 and immediately dies. And then she is born again, in 1910, lives longer, and dies again as a child. It seems that Ursula will keep on doing this until she gets it right, like a cat with infinite lives that learns things from each life that matter in the next one. And while she is undergoing this mulligan-like miracle, the century staggers from one world conflict to another. Can the indestructible Ursula help save it? Should she even try? While you ponder these metaphysical puzzles, Atkinson gives you brilliantly drawn characters, a vivid reconstruction of England during the World War II blitz and a mind-twistingly good read.

Why you’ll like it:

A fresh and clever premise, a fantastical perspective on very real events, a meditation on free will and a style that combines humor with sadness are among the gifts Atkinson brings her readers in this hard-to-characterize and hard-to-put-down novel.

What others are saying:

“…[Atkinson's] very best…a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author’s fully untethered imagination…[it] is full of mind games, but they are purposeful rather than emptily playful…Even without the sleight of hand, “Life After Life” would be an exceptionally captivating book with an engaging cast of characters,” says The New York Times.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Atkinson’s new novel … opens twice: first in Germany in 1930 with an English woman taking a shot at Hitler, then in England in 1910 when a baby arrives, stillborn. And then it opens again: still in 1910, still in England, but this time the baby lives. That baby is Ursula Todd, and as she grows up, she dies and lives repeatedly. Watching Atkinson bring Ursula into the world yet again initially feels like a not terribly interesting trick: we know authors have the power of life and death. But as Ursula and the century age, and war and epidemic and war come again, the fact of death, of “darkness,” as Atkinson calls it, falling on cities and people—now Ursula, now someone else, now Ursula again—turns out to be central. At heart this is a war story; half the book is given over to Ursula’s activities during WWII, and in its focus on the women and civilians usually overlooked or downplayed, it gives the Blitz its full measure of terror. By the end, which takes us back to that moment in 1930 and beyond, it’s clear that Atkinson’s not playing tricks; rather, through Ursula’s many lives and the accretion of what T.S. Eliot called “visions and revisions,” she’s found an inventive way to make both the war’s toll and the pull of alternate history, of darkness avoided or diminished, fresh. “

Kirkus Reviews says: “If you could travel back in time and kill Hitler, would you? Of course you would. Atkinson’s latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns… But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of “Groundhog Day,” but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and–in this instance–our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion. … there’s the rub with alternate realities, all of which, Atkinson suggests, can be folded up into the same life so that all are equally real. ….Provocative, entertaining and beautifully written. …”

“[S]tarting over and starting over, Ursula begins to retain impressions of her former lives. It’s not “Orlando”-esque reincarnation, nor is it the black joke of “Groundhog Day,” but some kind experiment in possibility. In one life a bundling seduction turns into a rape, and then an abortion; in another life the same seducer-rapist is cheerfully rebuffed, leaving no mark on the story. Ursula — she simply lives [the mystery], with a little more premonitory know-how each time. To the point where, having observed the currents of history as they flow (have flowed, will flow) around her and her family, she comes to the conclusion that it might be quite a good idea to kill Adolf Hitler. There. Now you have to read it,” says the Barnes & Noble Review.

When is it available?

Look for “Life After Life” at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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