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Todd Family #1

Life After Life

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What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula's apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can - will she?

531 pages, Hardcover

First published March 14, 2013

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About the author

Kate Atkinson

94 books10.2k followers
Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and she has been a critically acclaimed international bestselling author ever since.

She is the author of a collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, and of the critically acclaimed novels Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Case Histories, and One Good Turn.

Case Histories introduced her readers to Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, and won the Saltire Book of the Year Award and the Prix Westminster.

When Will There Be Good News? was voted Richard & Judy Book Best Read of the Year. After Case Histories and One Good Turn, it was her third novel to feature the former private detective Jackson Brodie, who makes a welcome return in Started Early, Took My Dog.

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Profile Image for Michael.
836 reviews610 followers
May 22, 2016
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

Ursula Todd is born in a snowstorm in England in 1910 but dies before she can take her first breath. During that same snowstorm she was born again and lives to tell the tale; again and again. Life after Life tells the story of Ursula’s lives, as with each new life she makes small changes that send her on a completely different path.

I feel like I’m the only person on the planet that thought this book was overhyped and over rated. Sure Kate Atkinson has this trippy ability to create this bleak world while still managing to add some wit and compassion but it wasn’t the writing that was at fault. The premise of the book makes it sound really good but let’s face it; it is just Groundhog Day in disguise. The book is clever, but it tries too hard to be clever and it didn’t really turn out the way it should have; for me anyway. This book is getting so many rave reviews, I feel like I am a black sheep just telling people it did not work.

As I said before, there is nothing wrong with the writing; Kate Atkinson has created this lyrical narrative and I did find myself being swept away in the words. I even felt like at times I was reading this book without thinking about what was happening; a few times I had to stop and process before continuing. I almost found myself not noticing a death and Ursula’s life starting again and that could have got me completely lost. I did feel like Kate Atkinson did however overdo the twists and it turned out to be a roundabout way to retell the same story over and over again with different outcomes. This could have worked; and it sounds like it worked for many people but I sadly wasn’t one of them.

I wonder if Kate Atkinson was trying something different and experimental where she could play with the character’s death and life, explore the concept of life’s choices and their consequences but because there were no real penalty to Ursula’s life I wonder if it really worked? Do you ever have déjà vu? (I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen) Life after Life just seems to repeat the same scenes, some readers might gain a sense of familiarity and for me it just felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Life after Life is the kind of book you should probably read in a real cold climate; the snowy, dark and sometimes bleakness of the novel seems to call for it. Maybe read snuggled up on a dark winters night and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today (It’s coooold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?). It is just the book that would work better in the cold; though it is never cold here in Townsville, maybe that’s why it didn’t work for me.

I really wanted to enjoy this book; I will try another Kate Atkinson novel because I really think she has a great style. Just so happened Life after Life was not for me and I know people loved this book and will probably complain about this review but at least it was just an excuse to put some Groundhog Day quotes into something. This book has had so many positive reviews so maybe it is just me, if the book sounds like something you’d like then don’t let this review stop you, is it too early for flapjacks?

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://www.knowledgelost.org/book-rev...
Profile Image for Banafsheh Serov.
Author 5 books82 followers
December 29, 2013
I wanted to like this book. I wish I could enjoy it. I bought it with such enthusiasm, and couldn't wait to start reading it. But alas, I sensed almost at the very start that it wasn't going to be a happy relationship - a point confirmed by mid-way through the book.

The length, the repetitive scenes, the incredible number of times Ursula dies and is reborn, are all tedious and terrible torment to get through. 2/3rds in, I found myself offended for having my time wasted. Surely Atkinson could show the courtesy of not subjecting her readers to so many repetitive scenarios.

I cannot fault Atkinson's writing nor do I have any particular dislike for her characters (I rather liked Izzy the best). But the plot lost my interest fairly early on and by the end, I positively wanted to hurl it at a wall (I didn't. I'm rather fond of my walls).

My apologies for offending anyone with this review. I understand our tastes are subjective and many simply adore this book. But I'm not one of them.
Profile Image for karen.
3,978 reviews170k followers
April 17, 2019
kate atkinson has written a lovely, accordion-fold of a novel here.

this is not a jackson brodie novel, which are always much better than your typical detective novels, (even though i haven't read the last one yet - merp), but this one is just so much more ambitious in scope and style than even those gems.

it is sublime.

at its most simplistic, it is about ursula, a character who will be born and die all in the first two pages. (excluding what i am considering to be a prologue) and then again. and again. she will die from falling off a roof, from drowning, from gas-inhalation, but she will be reborn again to live a collage of different lives, but always as ursula, and always surrounded by the same family. sometimes she can remember her past go-rounds, in hazy half-memories, and sometimes she can remember more, but this is not some hippy-dippy exploration of spiritual reincarnation. i have never read a book that is more human, more terrestrial. it is not necessarily about "getting it right" although you cheer inside every time she manages to avoid the decisions that led to some of her more horrifying deaths. it is more about our possible paths, about family, about history.it is about ripples and traps and the horrors of war.

and, oh, war. i have read many books about england during wartime, whether it be I or II. but never have i read one with more immediacy than this one. she does such a fantastic job with this particular material. not just the parts that you would think i would respond to, being of a ghoulish bent. the "recovery of the bodies" scenes were very graphic and haunting and shivery, yes, but i found myself responding not to the shocking descriptions, but more to the quieter scenes, the ones which are focused on the national character during wartime.

the englishness of this novel is just brilliant. there is such a pervading sense of "one does as one must and then one has tea" throughout.

On the way back from lunch, Sylvie said she wanted to visit Oberpollingers and buy a present for Hugh. When they reached the department store they found the windows daubed with anti-Jewish slogans and Sylvie said, "Gracious, what a mess." The shop was open for business but a pair of grinning louts in SA uniform were loitering in front of the doors, putting people off from entering. Not Sylvie, who had marched past the Brownshirts while Ursula reluctantly trailed in her wake into the store and up the thickly carpeted staircase. In the face of the uniforms, Ursula had shrugged a cartoon helplessness and murmured rather shamefacedly, "She's English." She thought that Sylvie didn't understand what it was like living in Germany but in retrospect she thought that perhaps Sylvie had understood very well.

i love that passage, on at least three different levels. the brisk insouciance of a mother accustomed to living in an imperial nation, the shame of a transplanted daughter living in a changing country whose climate she is becoming a part of, but doesn't yet fully understand, and the latent judgment passing as ignorance.

and this, which perfectly sums up the english spirit:

"No point in thinking," she said briskly, "you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try."

i loved that about this book. it is practical, unhysterical perfection. there is a determination to these characters in the face of horrors and lives lived always on the brink of destruction that is admirable and almost uplifting. you know, if it weren't for all the bombs.

this book killed me, it really did. and then i was reborn, as a reader. it is such a labor of love; you can feel how much thought atkinson put into it, with all of its carefully-sprinkled echoes from former life-plots, and how lovingly-rendered are even the smallest supporting characters (mr. emslie!! ♥).

obviously, i love izzie, the free-spirited drunken floozie of an aunt, even though she is such a selfish character. but that's kind of what this book is about - how when we are living our lives, we miss a great deal of what is happening around us, and if we had a chance to step back, to see the bigger picture, we might make different decisions, and in some cases, we could change the course of history.which sounds trite, but kate atkinson is a much more accomplished writer than i am, and this book is an absolute triumph.

you will have to wait until april to read this, unless you are greg, and are getting it friday, and then it will be mailed off to canada to bill. and it is a beautiful-looking arc:



so i am sad to see it go, but one does as one must.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,455 followers
December 31, 2013

Paul Bryant had really only just started driving back home, was still trying with his left hand to jam the seat belt buckle into its lock, and – multitasking like mad - he was thinking about how to review Life After Life, and probably getting too caught up in the various amusing ways it could be done, so that he simply didn’t notice the car poking far too far out of the side street. When finally he did, he had to swerve like crazy, right into the oncoming traffic. What with his seatbelt not being properly secured and the 30 ton lorry, darkness fell rapidly.


Paul Bryant had really only just started driving back home, was still trying with his left hand to jam the seat belt buckle into its lock, and – multitasking like mad - he was thinking about how to review Life After Life, but wasn’t so caught up in the various amusing ways it could be done that he didn’t notice the car poking far too far out of the side street. Stupid boy racer! He thought as he made a violent emergency stop. When he did finally get home he parked as usual round the corner, got out of his car and was delighted to be confronted with one of the urban foxes which visited Sherwood occasionally. Such elegant raffish creatures. But there seemed to be something agitating this particular one. It was moving side to side and then turning right round in some distress. What was wrong with it? Suddenly it lunged towards him, nipped him on the ankle and rushed away. He thought about the disturbing incident later that evening as he sat at his computer and began his review. But then he began to feel most peculiar. He suddenly hated all the people who had written sniffy reviews of Life After Life comparing it to Groundhog Day (as if – that may be a totally great movie but Bill Murray is aware of reliving his endless day, and Ursula is not aware of reliving her life, and it’s her whole life – it’s not even Groundhog Life, please, don't get me started); but also his mouth was dripping saliva, he had a high temperature, he was sweating like crazy, and his hair was standing straight up. Urgggghh.....he lapsed into a coma. Darkness fell – again.


Paul saw the idiot boy racer trying to edge out of the side road and slowed down to let him out. Why not? Let him cause a fatal crash somewhere else. When he got home, as he opened the car door he was confronted with one of the urban foxes who visited Sherwood occasionally. But this one looked a little strange. Thinking it might possibly be rabid, he gave it a blare on the car horn and it ran off. Later that evening, sat at his computer, he was trying to marshal his thoughts on Kate Atkinson’s pitch-perfect contemplation of our little lives and their infinite forking paths (Ursula’s main problem was that she couldn’t change the fact that she was born in 1910 – Hitler was always waiting for her) and how this gimmicky pop-philosophical soft-science fiction not-quite-alt-hist novel morphs into a terrifying war story, one of the best descriptions of life during the Blitz ever – but his thoughts were interrupted by the roar of a police helicopter. They fly around Sherwood sometimes, always en route to St Ann’s, which is gangster territory. This one seemed to be right above his house. What a racket. Suddenly, the noise stopped. Peace! That was not such a good thing however, as the helicopter’s engine had cut out and the helicopter was descending rapidly through his roof. Darkness fell quite quickly.


Paul – didn’t crash – wasn’t bit by rabid fox – didn’t have police helicopter fall on his house - made it to his computer in one piece and thought for a moment. Yes. The review. How about this.


Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
531 reviews58.5k followers
June 3, 2019
I love book about someone reliving their lives over and over and this one was no exception!

Historical fiction this time and finally with a main female character. The first half was my favorite but if you usually enjoy WW2 historical fiction you'll enjoy the book for sure.

It was a slow but captivating read, my only complain is the ending!
Profile Image for John Herbert.
Author 16 books22 followers
April 19, 2013
Oh dear dear dear dear dear!
Obviously I'm on another planet to all the other reviewers here, but try as I might, I simply had to give up on page 265...and call it a day.

The concept of constant re-births and lives was a good one but sadly, for me,the incidents throughout were so tame and tepid, and the characters that popped into Ursula's lives were so boring, I'm afraid the whole thing was like watching paint dry.

Remember that feeling of rushing to get back to a book to read what happens next? This was the exact opposite - dreaded picking it up, and trying to dredge up some interest in this conglomeration of non-entities!

Having paid £15.99 for this attractive looking hardback, I felt that I had to do the payment justice and at least give it a good try....but just over half way.....enough was enough!!!

If you want to really read a book that does this multi-life premise true justice, then read KEN GRIMWOOD'S book entitled REPLAY.
Now you're talking.
Profile Image for Tanya.
130 reviews57 followers
January 28, 2021

Ursula Todd is born in the midst of a blizzard in 1910, not once, but many times, during the course of her life - living only to die and be born again, repeatedly, traveling many paths until she lives the life she was meant to live.

Kate Atkinson's writing is superb, and lyrical enough that it carried me through to the end of this book. The plot, however, left me floundering for weeks, trying desperately to claw my way to the end of this depressing tale. While the premise - reincarnation and destiny - is interesting, the execution left me frustrated.

The early chapters of the book are very short, as Ursula is born, dies, and is reborn again with rapid succession. With each successive life, she lives longer (in most cases) and is developed more and more as a character. The choppy format of the early chapters make it difficult to get attached to Ursula, but as she lives longer, it becomes more and more apparent that she lives a sad, depressing life. In addition, as a result of her continued rebirth, it's difficult to become attached to her, or to feel any real regret or sadness at her passing. Also strange is that, as often as you meet them throughout Ursula's life, her siblings never really become fully realized characters. As they move in and out of her life, these siblings play important roles in the paths she follows, yet they remain rather one-dimensional, as though Atkinson couldn't be bothered to spend the time on them.

The book was also a bit too meandering in its plot. Lives that led no where interesting or important wandered on for far too long, while lives that seemed to be leading somewhere ended abruptly, only to pick up again to follow another pointless path. Perhaps this was Atkinson's exploration of the capricious nature of fate, but it made for some rough reading. About 100 pages of this novel could have been trimmed and it would only have improved the quality. Forty of those hundred pages should have been the last forty of the book - the last few "lives" lived by Ursula were confusing and unnecessary to the novel.

All in all, the writing was exactly what you'd expect from Atkinson (wonderful), but the story itself was confusing, lifeless, and somewhat empty. A hundred fewer pages, a different ending, and more fully fleshed-out secondary characters would have resulted in a 4 star book for me.

(I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for a review.)
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
July 25, 2019
“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in---I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”
Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café...Gotta go. Damn!

Now, where were we, a review? Yes, I seem to recall something about that. More of a feeling really. So, England, 20th century, perils of Pauline, well in this case Ursula, little bear, of Fox Corner, the manse of a well-to-do sort, not Downton rich, but, you know, comfortable. She has a prat of an older brother and a decent elder sis, with a couple of brothers arriving later.

Kate Atkinson - from The Telegraph

Life is full of decision points. Walk this way, survive, walk that way and splat. It begins early with Ursula, who is offed before her first breath the first time around. She gets a better deal on the next go, managing to remain with us into childhood, and so on. The structure seems to employ the backstitch a fair bit, starting Ursula up a few chronological paces before the deadly decision point. She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial. What if I had done this instead of that? How might that have changed the outcomes? One can imagine the fun, and challenge an author experiences. Taking her main character, and plenty of secondary characters as well, in one direction then another, then another. It must mimic, to a degree, the authorial process. What if I do this to Ursula? What might happen? What if I point her in a different direction? And as for stuff happening, while it is usually pretty calm here, writing while on a bench in Prospect Park, I must admit I have never seen tentacles that size emerging from anywhere let alone the very modest Park Lake. The slurping sounds are getting rather loud. That sumbitch is faster than he looks…Gotta go. Damn!

So, I felt like sitting with some coffee but the local café just seemed, I don’t know, not what I wanted. Then I considered maybe heading over to the park to work on a review, but it looks like it might rain, so I think I’ll stick at home for now. Of course the desktop has been a bit dodgy of late, but no big whup. I will dip into the special Kona stash, brew up a nice cuppa and set to, shoes off, no shirt. Maybe a nice bagel with butter and strawberry preserves. Yummm! Review, yes, Atkinson, Ursula, do-overs. Oh yeah, it does call to mind a bit of Groundhog Day, although Phil the Weatherman knew early on that he was coming back each time. Not Ursula, although as time goes on she does develop a bit of a sixth sense about some things. And the other major difference here is that Life After Life takes on some heftier purpose than Phil getting the girl and becoming a better person. Ursula is faced with some immediate challenges, like evading a rapist, a girl-killer, those annoying Nazi bombs during the blitz, not falling out windows, you know, stuff. But she also must contend with moral choices, and larger scale. Not only figuring out what the right thing is to do and then deciding, for her life, but thinking about how events affect other people, the nation, maybe the world. What sort of life does she want to lead? How can she help the most people? What sort of person does she want to be? Can she make an impact beyond her immediate concerns? And within that context, others face similar choices. Ursula is not the only one with multiple exit scenes. There are plenty in the chorus of secondary characters who come and go, or should that be go and come back in varying iterations. What if so-and-so did A this time and B the next? How might that change things? This is part of the fun of the book. Not all the decisions are of the life-threatening variety, but they can seriously impact one’s life, other lives as well. Excuse me a moment, Nala, sweetie, off the desk please. I will be happy to scratch you. No, do not rub up against my coffee cup. Nala, DOWN, NOW! Too late, brown milky liquid splatters from the cup on the desk, rushing over the top of the desktop tower, which is sitting on the floor between desk and couch. I get up to fetch some paper towels. Nala’s tail is vertical as she scampers from the room. Maybe I should have worn slippers. I step away from the desk chair, contact enough wet to matter, and only feel it for moment when my body hair begins to ignite and my heart goes into highly charged spasms. I hear the beginning of a scream and then….sonuva..!

Seems a lovely morning for some reviewing. Rainy out? Well, not yet, but you can feel it coming. So, open a few windows. Sit at the desk. Well. Maybe not. Might be a bit too much breeze there. Maybe the couch for a change. Yeah, book, they killed Kenny. You bastards! England. Ursula. War.
I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. - from Chatelaine interview
There have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.

Ursula is a very engaging character. Each time she comes back, you want her to stick around. And even when she makes bad choices you will be rooting for her to fix those in the next round. Her sister Pamela seems as decent a sort as their brother Maurice seems insufferable, maybe a bit too insufferable. We get to see dimensions to Atkinson’s characters over the many iterations, learn something new about them, sometimes surprisingly so. I found it to be entirely engaging, and was always sad when Ursula went dark yet again. The book opens with her taking aim at the worst baddie of the 20th century and you will keep hoping she finds her way back to that place and completes the mission. Will she?

One of the most riveting and memorable elements in Life After Life is the description of London during the Blitz, on the ground, you-are-there, offering considerable nightmare material, and making it clear just how hardy the survivors must have been, and how fragile the hold on life, whichever iteration a person is in. The best part of the book, for me.

There are many uses of animal references here. Ursula means little bear, The family name, Todd, means Fox. A group of Nazi wives is referred to as a wolf pack. Actual foxes move in and out of the story, residents of Fox Corner, the Todd family home. A German is named Fuchs which also means fox. There are more. A warden during the Blitz is named Woolf. At one point, Atkinson offers a wink and a nod to readers as her characters discuss time travel questions. There is much consideration here of the role and rights of women in the first half of the 20th century, and the changes in mores that marked the era. The difference between love and gratitude when considering marriage is considered. The effect of World War I on the nation is noted as well, the loss of a generation of men in the war, and the loss of vast numbers from both genders from the Spanish flu. While florid passages do not characterize the novel, there are some wonderful descriptions. One of my favorites regards the night sky during the Blitz
“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.
Yes it is.

Now that the task is done, I think I will bring in a glass of juice and have some of these lovely hard sourdough pretzels. Maybe catch something from the DVR. Always loved these pretzels, except, of course, when bits get stuck going down. Sometimes large bits, uh oh, a very large bit…trying to self-Heimlich, but no go, hitting my head on the edge of the coffee table as I stumble and fall while trying to stand up. Maybe if I can get some liquid in there it will soften it, but the noggin-knock and the inability to get any air makes decision-making a tough go. Damn!

Published - 5/2/13

Review Posted – 7/17/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

-----Chatelaine by Alex Laws – this is a two-parter. The link to the second part is at the bottom of this one.
-----NPR - with Scott Simon
-----The Sydney Morning Herald by Linda Morris

My review of Todd Family #2, A God in Ruins

Reading group guide - from LitLovers
Profile Image for Jason.
137 reviews2,297 followers
April 21, 2014
I’m rating this book two stars only on a technicality…which is that technically speaking, this book sucks.

Ursula Todd is an English-born nobody. Born into a large wealthy family, there isn’t a whole lot about her that stands out. She shares a closeness with one or two of her siblings, but overall she has a pretty meek personality and remains largely invisible most of her life—with the caveat that “most of her life” in Ursula’s case actually means “most of her lives” because this bitch keeps on dropping dead and coming back again.

Life After Life is a book that focuses on Ursula’s slow build-up, over the course of multiple lives (because it takes her hundreds of tries to get it right), to assassinating Adolf Hitler. This is not a spoiler, by the way. The assassination occurs on page one. The hundreds of lives it takes for her to get to that point occur on pages two through five hundred twenty-nine. And that includes the following exits, stage left (spoiler alert if you’re a Final Destination fan): umbilical cord strangulation, asphyxiation by natural gas, blunt force trauma by a falling brick wall, blunt force trauma by a homicidal husband, suicide by cyanide capsule, stroke (or whatever the hell that was on the park bench), falling off a roof, Spanish flu, drowning, Blitz bombing. Some of these happen repeatedly because it takes Ursula several lives to figure out that she’s doing something wrong and needs to adjust her strategy. She can’t exactly remember her previous deaths, but she does know something is amiss and can occasionally execute a modification to her preordained path and avoid that outcome...only to have a different mortal outcome occur in its stead, of course. (But truthfully, most of the time the modification occurs on its own without her having to do anything at all. Magic!)

And that is what is most bothersome to me, I think (besides her dull personality). It is exhausting to read about a woman dying over and over again only to be reborn right back where she started, and all without seeming to have any input into anything whatsoever. She just goes along with the program, a plastic bag beaten about by the wind. All the dumb things she has done along the way, all the idiots she enters into relationships with, it all starts over, and then you start to get confused as to who’s alive and who’s dead in this new life of hers and is she still with this person? Is she a mother this time around? A spinster? And then you start to realize that who cares. It doesn’t matter. She’ll just die again anyway. In fact the only time she ever starts to make real decisions is toward the end of the novel after she has lived a ludicrous number of lives, and are we supposed to be at this point rooting for her? What most of us have just one lifetime to figure out she gets hundreds, and even so it’s still not enough? One of my favorite of Ursula’s decisions is that after dying a bunch of times in the Blitz, she decides to spend her next life somewhere safer and moves from London to fucking Munich.

Good grief.

Also, the character interactions, which is something I usually enjoy in novels, is pretty nonexistent here. Characters don’t have meaningful interactions in Life After Life; they merely quip and provide one-liners before the narrative moves onto the next scene (which is often just as dull). Reading this book ultimately became tiresome to me, which is not really how you want your reading experience to go.

Looking at the ratings for this novel it’s clear I’m in the minority, which is why I felt a certain pressure to isolate the components of it that irritated me or caused me to dislike it, but the truth is I don’t really know for sure if it was any of these things in particular or if it was the whole package to blame, but the bottom line is that this book was just not for me.
Profile Image for Trudi.
615 reviews1,414 followers
March 31, 2013

I'm pretty sure the idea of being forced to live my life over and over again is something plucked from my worst nightmares, but who among us hasn't been at least tempted to dream of it occasionally with a wistful sigh. Please, please, please, just one more chance to live the best moments again and when necessary, to make different choices? But I would imagine if any of us were actually tasked to unravel all the "right" and "wrong" choices from our life and to relive the bad with the good, we'd go screaming into the night like raving banshees.

For what is a perfect life? How many kicks at the can would it take for you to answer that question, if it is indeed answerable at all? Change one thing, change everything, change nothing, change all the good, change all the bad. Round and round and round. It's exhausting just thinking about it. What's the saying? If I only knew then, what I know now...what? What would you do different? And would different choices always translate into better choices?

Ursula is a normal British girl except she's pretty certain she's lived her life before, maybe many, many times. The older she gets, the stronger these feelings of deju vu become, hounding her like ghosts in the night. Her prescience is rarely crystal clear, more like moods or instinct. Do this. Don't do that. Run away. Run toward. Stay still.

Life After Life starts slow and unassuming. The story is teasing, the pacing a dawdling, scenic walk through the English countryside. But from the very first page I was enthralled and little did I realize what a powerful spell Atkinson was casting on my reader brain. Because as you continue to read, the book picks up gravity and speed and texture. Each life after life reinforces the tender bonds you have been working on with each of the characters. Your acquaintance with them is not one brief life, but many, many lives. Like Ursula we are both cursed and blessed with the long view, the big picture. We come to know all the various permutations of death, cruelty, love and loss. We bear witness through two World Wars and how some forces, no matter how forewarned, are unstoppable, greater even than the hand of time.

This is a very English story, and is steeped in pre-1950 historical detail. Not ever having watched an episode of Downton Abbey I'll go out on a limb here and suggest fans of that show will love this novel for its acute sense of time and attention to detail. Atkinson is ruthless in her pursuit for authenticity. This is wartime England, no time to pussyfoot around. This has got to be right, and in her quest I believe she succeeds magnificently. The details are small but glorious, and paint such an intimate portrait you will feel absorbed into Ursula's quiet family life where there are disagreements and births, and jealousies and forgiveness. Yes, there is the rumble of the earth as the German bombs fall during the Blitz, but such terrible moments co-exist with the stark ordinariness of a life lived. Dinners, and picnics, and birthdays and games of cricket, and work, and gardening, and lots and lots of tea.
"Ow!" one of the evacuees squealed beneath the table. "Some bugger just kicked me."...Something cold and wet nosed itself up Ursula's skirt. She hoped very much that it was the nose of one of the dogs and not one of the evacuees.

This knowledge of the ATS girl's background seemed to particularly infuriate Edwina, who was gripping the butter knife in her hand as if she were planning to attack someone with it--Maurice or the ATS girl, or anyone within stabbing distance by the look of it. Ursula wondered how much harm a butter knife could do. Enough she supposed.
There is whimsy and humor laced throughout this novel and it makes for a beautiful contrast to the more serious components of tragedy and war. Life is a farce after all; if you can't find the humor in it you've been doing it wrong or have missed the point entirely. Atkinson has not missed the point. As readers, we are in capable hands. She has one helluva story to tell you, and trust me, you don't want to miss it.

This review can also be found at Busty Book Bimbo.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,962 reviews293k followers
June 12, 2014
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?”

Life After Life is a novel I probably wouldn't have chosen for myself. And how sad it is to think that I might have passed this novel over and never known these characters and relationships.

It often seems like I am the only person in the world who hasn't watched Downton Abbey (definitely the only Brit who hasn't) but the favourable comparisons I keep seeing between the show and this book make me want to drop everything and go watch it. I imagine it has similarities. All the drama of wartime England combined with a soft, often quiet story about family life and just... people.

So many people come and go in this novel, but each one is lovingly-crafted and leaves their own personal mark. I adore it when authors do this - and so few do - when they make sure every single character becomes a human being with a life and personality beyond pushing the plot in a certain direction.

The story centres around Ursula Todd who is born one snowy night in 1910 and dies that night from strangling on her own umbilical cord. On that same night in 1910, Ursula is born and lives. What follows is a strange life full of many deaths that were, at the same time, also avoided. Somehow, in the hands of this extremely talented writer, a concept as trite as second chances becomes original, beautiful and so so moving.

I would not sell this as a fast-paced adventure; it's pacing is relatively slow and it takes a while for the reader to realise that this book has far more depth than they first imagined. It bobs along at a steady pace, full of dazzling wit, humour and charm. It has an unmistakable old-fashioned Englishness about it - all tea time and "goodness gracious" - which works very well with the time and setting. But still, it was far from boring. It is too charming and well-written to be boring, and I could hardly put it down once I became absorbed in the characters' stories (which didn't take long at all).

This novel seems to gather layers as it goes. One minute you're sipping tea and enjoying the relationship dynamics, and the next you suddenly look back and realise that this quiet little wartime story has become steeped in philosophical detail, without seeming pretentious or too try-hard.

Such a wonderful read and highly recommended.

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Profile Image for Ellis.
1,210 reviews136 followers
March 16, 2016
This book is so painfully fantastic, I’m going to kind of ignore the fact that it stops making sense at the end. Is there a word that simultaneously means achingly lovely & frustratingly confusing? Ursula Todd is born in 1910 with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck & dies without ever drawing breath. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The doctor cuts the cord & Ursula grows to age five, when she drowns in the ocean on holiday. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The doctor cuts the cord. Ursula grows to age five, when she almost drowns in the ocean on holiday. A man on the beach saves her. She falls out the window of her house that winter. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. It turns out that Ursula Todd has an infinite number of lives lined up for her after her death, but what’s the reason for her many reincarnations? Could a little event like World War II have anything to do with it?

As a book about the life of Ursula Todd, this succeeds brilliantly. I could read an entire 500+ pages more about Ursula, her parents, siblings, and her adventures in England & Germany around the advent of WWII. Most of what happens to Ursula is appalling; It’s so beautifully written, so mesmerizing & heart-breaking, it’s impossible not to stop everything else you’re doing & devour this like a fat cake as fast as you can. In fact it lends itself particularly well to those times when you’re reading & you just trail away late into the night, a personal favorite situation of mine.

Unfortunately, once this book tries to figure out what it all means, it gets a little muddled. I’m not sure what it’s all supposed to mean, but in the end, I’m willing to let the pleasure lie in the journey. It’s the sort of book I would re-read in a week or so to gather all the inevitable a-ha moments in my little basket if I wasn’t so sure that it would break my heart all over again. I need a little distance first.

Profile Image for Anne .
443 reviews360 followers
March 24, 2019
4.5 stars. So much great writing and characterization. Such an interesting premise and structure. Wonderful use of humor and irony (thank you, Teresa) throughout. Remarkable depictions of The Blitz. I want to give this book 5 stars. But I can't. A bit of editing would have helped. but that's a quibble. It's very difficult to go back over the same territory over and over again and keep it interesting. Atkinson did this amazingly well, tho there were moments of, "oh not this again." The real blooper for me was Ursula

Also, I didn't love the way the book ended. Reading the book was like jumping out of an airplane and enjoying the ride (most of it), trusting that the landing will be a good one. Well, the parachute opened, but very late. The landing was abrupt. I think I still feel concussed. I just closed the book and I'm wondering, "what just happened?" Like Ursula, I'd like to go back up and try that again. Maybe the outcome would be better the second (or third or fourth) time around.

Profile Image for Melissa.
781 reviews67 followers
April 21, 2017
I'm embarrassed to say I didn't really understand this book. I'm a huge Kate Atkinson fan and I think she's one of the most creative writers I've ever read. And I loved the idea of this book: Ursula is born, dies, and is born again, living different -sometimes very different - versions of her life over and over again. One of my problems is that there didn't seem to be any "rules" like there usually are in books about time travel and other magical occurrences. Sometime Ursula seems to remember the past versions of her life, sometimes she seems not to. Sometimes things change drastically, sometimes not so much. I found that confusing and sometimes hard to follow. And the unfortunately at the end I lost track of which life she was in and totally didn't understand what happened! I'm going to have to go read some of the other reviews and see if they can shed any light on it for me!
Profile Image for Fabian.
947 reviews1,562 followers
September 12, 2019
What I expected to be Borgesian, absolutely meta, actually turned out a tad gimmicky &, no joke, choose-your-own-adventure-like. But no problem. It has a huge heart & employs a super witty use of parentheticals, of asides. It is optimistic in the face of oblivion. W.W.II. And, even though I know I insult discerning readers when I say that this is like Ian McEwan's Atonement, Redux; but... this novel is Atonement Redux.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,566 reviews56.6k followers
March 23, 2022
Life After Life (Todd Family #1), Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is a 2013 novel by Kate Atkinson. It is the first of two novels about the Todd family. The second, A God in Ruins, was published in 2015.

The novel with unusual structure, repeatedly looping back in time to describe alternative possible lives for its central character, Ursula Todd, who is born on 11 February 1910 to an upper-middle-class family near Chalfont St Peter in Buckingham shire. In the first version, she is strangled by her umbilical cord and stillborn.

In later iterations of her life she dies as a child - drowning in the sea, or when saved from that, by falling to her death from the roof when trying to retrieve a fallen doll. Then there are several sequences when she falls victim to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 - which repeats itself again and again, though she already has a foreknowledge of it, and only her fourth attempt to avert catching the flu succeeds. Then there is an unhappy life where she is traumatized by being raped, getting pregnant and undergoing an illegal abortion, and finally becoming trapped in a highly oppressive marriage, and being killed by her abusive husband when trying to escape.

In later lives she averts all this by being preemptively aggressive to the would-be rapist. In between, she also uses her half-memory of earlier lives to avert the neighbor girl Nancy being raped and murdered by a child molester. The saved Nancy would have an important role in Ursula's later life(s), forming a deep love relationship with Ursula's brother Teddy, and would become a main character in the sequel, A God in Ruins. ...

عنوانهای چاپ شده در ایران: «زندگی پشت زندگی»؛ «زندگی پس از زندگی»؛ نویسنده: کیت اتکینسون؛ تاریخ نخستین خوانش روز یازدهم ماه سپتامبر سال2017میلادی

عنوان: زندگی پشت زندگی؛ نویسنده: کیت اتکینسون؛ مترجمها: گروه ترجمه‌ ی شیراز زیر نظر علی معصومی؛ مشهد‏‫، بوتیمار‬‏‫، چاپ اول سال1394؛ چاپ دیگر سال1395؛ در556ص؛ شابک9786004040730؛ موضوع داستانهای نویسندگان بریتانیا - سده21م

عنوان: زندگی پس از زندگی؛ نویسنده: کیت اتکینسون؛ مترجم: سیدسعید کلاتی؛ تهران نشر هیرمند‏‫، سال1396؛ در591ص؛ شابک9789644084348؛‬

عنوان: زندگی پس از زندگی؛ نویسنده کتی اتکینسون؛ ‏‫مترجم معصومه حیدری؛ ویراستار محمد مرادی‌ناصرآباد؛ تهران؛ انتشارات آناپنا، چاپ دوم سال‏‫1398؛ در724صفحه؛ شابک9786007394564؛

زندگی پس از زندگی؛ اثری از «کیت اتکینسون»، نویسنده، رمان‌نویس، نمایش‌نامه‌ نویس، روزنامه‌ نگار، و ...؛ زاده ی شهر «یورک انگلستان» هستند، که برای نخستین بار در سال2013میلادی منتشر گردید؛ این اثر، نخستین کتاب از دوگانه ای در رابطه با «خانواده تاد» است؛ «اورسلا تاد»، شخصیت اصلی این رمان است، که چندین بار می­میرد، و دوباره زنده می­شود؛ «اورسلا» در هر زندگی تازه با گزینش­ها و موقعیت­های گوناگونی روبرو میشود، که میتوانند مسیر تاریخ را دیگر کنند؛

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 18/02/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ 02/01/1401هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Baba.
3,560 reviews856 followers
December 31, 2022
A baby is born and then dies, as snow falls over England in 1910, fade to darkness. The same baby is born and lives to be named Ursula Todd. And this is how this book proceeds with Ursula, or is that with us readers(?); for each time death comes to Ursula, the next chapter has a different outcome. There's always a second chance.

But this book is more than a parade of what ifs; through the minutiae of everyday life for Ursula, Atkinson maps the progress of England before, during and in between the two World Wars, the changing attitudes to the role of women in society, the evolving nature of familial ties, how we see and talk about death and more. Right now, right here, I'm saying that I'm going to read this again with in a year, but this time at a much more serene pace. 7 out of 12, Three Star read... with more to come.

2022 read
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews873 followers
August 28, 2016
Chances are you’ve already heard about the device Atkinson used to tell this remarkable story. It was February of 1910 when baby Ursula died at birth, but she was granted a narrative do-over. Next time the doctor made it through the snowstorm to sever the umbilical cord that was strangling her. She also got another chance after tumbling from the roof trying to reach a doll her malignant older brother had thrown there. Similar life after death sequences played out after a seaside drowning, the Spanish flu, and various war-time atrocities. Some might call this a gimmick, but that seems too pejorative a term to me. In Atkinson’s capable hands it was a wonderful tool that allowed her to play "what if", to explore subtle changes with far-reaching consequences (though butterflies and chaos were never mentioned), as well as to evaluate moral trade-offs where alternative scenarios improve the lot of some to the detriment of others.

The way I’ve described this so far you might imagine that Punxsutawney Phil and a very resigned Bill Murray would feature at every turn. But it wasn’t really like that. For one thing, the story didn’t always revert back to square one (where the Sonny and Cher equivalent might have been playing on the gramophone). Plus, there were exogenous differences in each scenario, separate from Ursula’s actions. A better analogy might be how we navigate our way through a maze, proceeding until we reach a dead end and backtracking to the point where we can follow a different path. But even that’s not quite right. With the maze, we know where the decision points are. At best, Ursula had dim recollections of previous paths taken – a vague sense of déjà vu. Atkinson scored literary points for the artful abstractions of these foggy memories.

Before I get too carried away with the device, which I suspect had to do with a huge inventory of ready-to-use death scenes Atkinson wanted to employ ;-) , I should mention what I consider to be even better selling points: the story, the characters and the setting. As fans of her Jackson Brodie books will attest, Atkinson is a master of crime drama. She was not about to short-shrift us on plot. Each snippet of Ursula’s life (or, more appropriately, lives) had plenty going on including creative avoidance of paths we knew from before wouldn’t work. Her relationships with men got appreciably better in later iterations once she got past her teenage naivety and some very unwelcome advances. Many of the most poignant storylines derived from the hardship of the setting – England spanning the two world wars. You might imagine that air raids, deprivation, and loss of loved ones would leave little time for character development beyond a collective stiffness of upper lips, but you’d be wrong. Ursula herself was insightful, empathetic, philosophical and poetic. Her family members, including a larger-than-life aunt who struck it big with a children’s book series, had memorable traits as well; all of them recognizably human. Friends and co-workers were given enough personality to be interesting, too. That was even true of the German ones.

Speaking of Germans, there was one in particular that authors of do-overs consistently wish dead. Atkinson was no exception (which I don’t consider a spoiler since it was taken up in the first two pages). It is a fascinating question, even if over-asked. What if he had been killed before he had influence? How many lives would have been spared? What would our culture be like had there been no Holocaust? Or, as Ursula wondered, what if the US had not spent its way out of the Depression during the war and become the dominant purveyor of goods and lifestyles. (Cheeky lady, implying it would be better. But I have to ask: how fast would her food be now? And how much reality would her TV feature?)

I really liked this book. Typically I’m suspicious of devices that quantum physics, even at its strangest, can’t explain. But this one felt right. In a time when life was too easily lost, in a place where the war seeped into too many homes, it seemed appropriate that a work of fiction would offer some therapeutic revamping. All the more so after Atkinson personalized it for us, putting a likable lady with multifold potential in the middle of it all. And if one of the goals of personal development is to choose optimal paths, it’s helpful to see a template where repeated trials over similar circumstances lead to better decisions and an older soul.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
830 reviews760 followers
December 4, 2013
The snake devouring its tail is an ancient symbol of wholeness, infinity, renewal, and eternal return. It symbolizes the cyclic nature of the universe, creation out of destruction, life after death. Likewise, the famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, advanced the concept of the Shadow self, the parts of your self that are hidden from society. The process of becoming whole, psychically, is to integrate the unconscious (Shadow) and conscious selves, through deep meditation, dreams, or long journeys that build awareness.

If this seems too much of an academic introduction to the brilliantly epochal novel by Kate Atkinson, it is also a reference to the finely calibrated structure and themes of life...after life. Atkinson time travels her narrative back to Feb 11, 1910, repeatedly, so that her protagonist, Ursula Todd, can return again and again to rebirth and renewal. Right from the beginning, Ursula dies quickly after birth. Then she returns. Dies rather quickly again. In subsequent lives, she may take longer to die. But through each of these lives, we learn a lot more about Ursula. And, so does Ursula learn more about herself. For example, after a tragedy in one life, Ursula tends to feel a sense of something, or a chill, when the tragedy is coming close in the next life, and can often do something to prevent its reocurrence, even though she is not quite sure why she is doing it.

Atkinson did it with such holographic clarity that I wondered how it had not been done a thousand times before in literature. If I searched for similarly structured movies, however, GROUNDHOG DAY and BUTTERFLY EFFECT would come to mind as cousins, perhaps.

There is certainly a purpose to this structure, but it isn't mechanical or expeditious. You may be scratching your head, wondering as you read, but you will settle in before long. The novel is so dynamic, and initially winsome (and subtly tongue-in-cheek), that you feel in the bosom of it, not at arm's length or outside the story. Is it a gimmick? No, it is the anchor. It doesn't seem segmented or choppy; rather, it all integrates, like Jung's concept.

Ursula's darkness penetrates to a metaphysical undertaking, and the reader is side by side with her odyssey. The author captures Ursula's moments of life-to-death-to-life enchantingly, yet poignantly, and the cycles nourish the theme of the story. Those in-between moments of life and death pique reader understanding, too. Her frequent returns don't feel repetitive, because Atkinson brings acuity and new observations for the reader to ponder.

"...she could feel the shining, luminous world beyond calling, the place where all mysteries would be revealed. The darkness enveloped her, a velvet friend. Snow was in the air, as fine as talcum, as icy as the east wind on a baby's skin..."

The author also weaves in penetrating allusions to the unconscious mind within the chaos, destruction and detritus of war. The settings(s) of the novel preside like a primary character, one in which repeated experience manifests deeper understanding. Like Ursula, I am inclined to return, time and again, and let the pages encircle me into the "black bat of darkness" and the snow blazing white of day.

"Time isn't circular. It's like a...palimpsest."
Profile Image for Michael Jensen.
Author 4 books136 followers
July 25, 2014

I'm not sure I can communicate how angry this book made me and how angry I am that gave up enough of my life to read all 529 pages. I'm less mad at Atkinson, who thought she had a good idea, than I am at the idiotic book critics slobbering all over this nonsensical novel.

Many people have compared this book to the movie Groundhog Day where the main character lives the same day over and over. In Life After Life, the main character is born, lives a varying length of time, dies, and is born again. The difference between Groundhog Day and this book is that in the movie the main character learns something from living again and again. In Life After Life, the main character learns nothing. Oh, she has some vague feelings and the occasional premonition thanks to her past lives, but does she learn from one life to the next? Not really. Mostly she lives a little longer each time because she recognizes a stray dog, meets some different than she expected, and so forth. Nothing happens for any particularly discernible reason.

Until late in one storyline, our protagonist meets a very bad figure from history. Hmm, where could this end up going? The woman quickly dies in this storyline, and the book reverts back to the usual storylines without the big bad. Until suddenly in one life, after exhibiting virtually no awareness that she is being born over and over, the woman apparently realizes she is meant to take out the big bad, and suddenly decides to do so. Huh? And this critical development, apparently the point of the whole book, takes two or three pages, then she's dead again, and we're back to her being born over and over.

Why did she suddenly know what she was meant to do about the big bad? No idea. The author gives us no clue. Why is she born again after completing her apparent reason for being born. No idea. The author gives us no idea. Sh*t just happens apparently.

Kate Atkinson writes perfectly fine prose. Often its quite good, and she captures wartime England very convincingly and even gives us engaging characters. Nonetheless, this is a deeply, deeply stupid book, and I can only suggest for it people who don't give a damn about coherent plot, but are just satisfied by pretty words. Everyone else should stay away.

Profile Image for Stephanie *Eff your feelings*.
239 reviews1,194 followers
May 10, 2013
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?”

Would it?

I believe everyone would love a chance to go back and change things in their past. Correct mistakes in order to change their life or their loved ones lives for the better. But changing one thing may only lead to a new problem……then you have to go back, change the first mistake, then the second one, and so on. I don’t know about you, but this sounds exhausting to me.

Ursula gets the chance to get it ‘right’ over and over again. She is born on a snowy night in February 1910, but since she is born with no doctor present, and with the umbilical cord around her neck she never breaths a breath. Ursula is born on a snowy night in February 1910; the doctor makes it in time to save the little girl from nearly straggling on her own umbilical cord. Through it all, Ursula lives many lives and dies many deaths. Each time she is reborn in the same life, same date, same circumstances but each time she has a certain amount of recall from former times around and she is able to make choices to avoid catastrophe….but new catastrophes, and new deaths, always crop up and they need a fixing the next time around.

Every time she made the right decision and avoided some horrible fate it I would be so happy and I’d hope that maybe this time would be the last time for Ursula, that she would finally get to rest (even though I didn’t want the book to end), but no, there was always the snow.

This book is just beautiful. Painstakingly researched and sublimely written, Life After Life has found a place on my Favorites shelf. Kate Atkinson wrote about life in WWII England and in WWII Germany in such a human way that I don’t believe I ever really felt, or understood, what it was truly like until I read this book. What it was like to live with the threat of being bombed every single night, horrifying. Or what it was like to live under the rule of a crazy man, loving him and worshiping him as the savior of your country only to realize, too late, who he really was.

I love this book and this quote that I hate to admit hits a little too close to home.

“Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.”
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
December 9, 2018
2.5 stars. I didn't know it then, but some of my schoolwork from my younger days were palimpsests, manuscripts on which the original writing has been erased to make room for later writing, but where traces of the original writing remain.

Ursula Todd compares her life (lives) to a palimpsest: she has an apparently infinite number of do-overs of her life. It's kind of like Groundhog Day, except that she starts over at birth each time, and each life ends with her death. She has frequent deja vu experiences and some vague memories and forebodings about events from her prior lives, but like the palimpsest, they've mostly been erased and only hazy traces remain.

Ursula also has a lot of very rough lives. (I suspect that having her die early and often made the story easier to write.) Part of it is that she lived through both world wars in Great Britain, so the post-WWI Spanish flu epidemic and the London Blitz account for a fair number of her deaths, but really she does seem to have an undue amount of extremely bad luck. For a while I amused myself by keeping track of the number of deaths, but eventually I lost count. At any rate, she dies

Because of her vague recollections, she's able to avoid some of the worse events from some of her lives in future lives, but sometimes her lives go into frustrating loops. It takes her about 5 tries to figure out how to avoid dying at age 8 from that 1918 influenza epidemic.

Part of my frustration with Life After Life was its repetitive nature. Ursula's birth scene (death #1) gets repeated more times than I can count, until I was ready to throw the book against the wall every time I saw the words "11 February 1910" appear in the chapter header.

Another problem is that I never really took to any of the characters in the book. Ursula herself is a bit of a sad sack, although she does show a lot of grit and has an admirable determination to avoid the sinkholes from her prior lives. She has an affair with at least one married man in one of her lives (or maybe the same guy in several lives--I was kind of losing track at this point) and marries some truly awful guys in other lives. Some of the people in her family are wonderful, but her mother is kind of distant and bitchy and her older brother is a first-class jerk.

The storyline is kind of the same deal: some--very few--enjoyable periods in her life, but those are small islands in an ocean of grimness and outright misery. The London Blitz seemed to last forever. I'm sure that was realistic, and it was well-written, but it was depressing and rather tedious reading material. Like, say, this, when Ursula is a warden helping to rescue people from bombed buildings:
As she crept gingerly forward, Ursula's knee pressed on something soft and supple and she recoiled, banging her head on a broken rafter, sending a shower of dust down. . . She had once stood on a body, recognized the squashy, meat-like quality of it. She supposed she had to look, although God knows she didn't want to. . . She peeled back a layer of wool and then another one as if unwrapping a badly packed parcel or a large, unwieldy cabbage. Eventually a small almost unblemished hand, a small star, revealed itself from the compacted mass. She thought she might have found Emil. Better then that his mother was dead rather than knowing about this, she thought. "Be careful here, Mr. Emslie," she said over her shoulder, "there's a baby, try to avoid it."
The ending: I thought I had it all figured out but the last few pages threw me for a loop. Spoilerish discussion time: So I just don't know.

Overall, I thought Life After Life was well-written and well-researched, but too repetitive and bleak for my taste. Also, trying to think about how this repeating life thing could logically work (is it a "many worlds"/split universe scenario?) makes my head start to hurt every time I go there. A lot of people love this book, though, so give it a shot if it sounds appealing.

Failed buddy read with Nenia and Figgy: One (me) who finished after a 2-month hiatus, one DNF, and one still on hiatus (she says she's going to finish it sometime ...).

Content advisory: gruesome wartime scenes, domestic violence, frequent death scenes (NSS), some adulterous and non-marital sex (all non-explicit), and scattered F-bombs.
Profile Image for Maciek.
562 reviews3,315 followers
August 7, 2013
Bollocks! (?)

I struggled to find a word which would describe my reaction to Life After Life - Kate Atkinson's latest novel, released to considerable hype - and I came up with this. It's no perfect but then my reaction is not perfectly uniform as well; one can't accuse ms. Atkinson of being a hack and phoning her book in, not having an interesting enough idea or even of being a poor writer. She writes well, her concept is interesting and her writing flows easily and doesn't obstruct the storyline(which is not always a bad thing). So why am I unimpressed?

Life After Life begins with an unusual situation. Ursula Todd, the protagonist, dies at the day of her birth in 1910 - an infant strangled with the umbilical cord during the delivery. In the very next scene Ursula's birth is shown to be happening again, but this time a doctor arrives to save the baby from asphyxiation. Ursula is born and lives, but soon dies again in different circumstances, only to be born and live once more, in yet another alternative version of the same event. And so it goes - rinse and repeat, life after life.

The theme of reincarnation in fiction is neither new or unpopular - witness the success of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which was adapted into a blockbuster film last year. While I thought that Cloud Atlas was a bit gimmicky and didn't really breach any new grounds, it definitely had its advantages - such as David Mitchell's literary ventriloquism displayed by creation of several stories entirely different in tone and genre, but united by a common theme. Life After Life focuses on exploring different outcomes of certain situations - but this makes it feel repetitive and dull after a while: once Ursula dies for the umpteenth time we know for sure that a different version of the events leading to her death would kick. We realize that there isn't really a definite version of Ursula's story; it became increasingly difficult for me to care about any of them as I found myself being less and less interested.

Life After Life contains several gripping and emotional scenes set during the London Blitz, two that stick in memory are of Ursula being trapped under the rubble and suffering from bitter cold and lack of resources. But even they lose their impact in the repetitiveness of the novel. As I read on, I found myself thinking that the reading experience resembles trying to jumpstart an old car which died in the middle of the road; we push and try to start the engine which spurts on for a moment, and we can ride in it for a few minutes, until it dies once more, forcing us to get out and start pushing once again. Even if the old car will carry us all the way to the destination, we find ourselves wishing we'd rather walked or took the bus instead. And os it was for me with Life After Life - after a while I had to push myself to read on, and even though it started up for a while it soon died again, forcing me to redouble my efforts. In the end, I felt that even thought I made it all the way to the end my undertaking was not appropriately rewarded.

I'll certainly read more of Kate Atkinson's work, since she's a readable and entertaining writer - it's just this book that didn't do it for me. Any recommendations? Behind the Scenes at the Museum looks interesting, as do Case Histories.
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews320 followers
February 10, 2017
“No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”

While I can understand the mixed reaction, and wouldn't call it a book for everyone, Life After Life is a beautifully written, acutely English, slow-burner of a novel, a beautiful piece of family drama and comedy, and a fantastic work of historical fiction. It's wrapped in a high-concept conceit of our protagonist Ursula's continual birth and rebirth into her not quite the same life, but said conceit is executed softly, subtly, played for laughs, used to display the horrors of war and the simple beauties of life. As such, it somewhat defies conventional subject categorization other than really well-done fiction. This book just clicked for me: the gorgeous prose, the unexpected and welcome humor, the depth of description of the Blitz and bucolic Fox Corner, the glorious (the dazzling and dueling Sylvie and Izzy especially) female characters of the Todd family (and their solid yet less interesting male family members), the constant literary references and the way major questions about life's meaning and importance are handled quietly, thoughtfully, artfully.

While not a perfect novel, I was completely swept away by Life After Life and this is something I'll re-read in the future. Overall, I found so much humanity in this read, and it was so well-written, I couldn't help but be moved and informed and entertained by it. This is a novel that also rifled through my fears of my (and everyone's) mortality, yet also left a pervading sense of optimism, or at least perseverance in the face of the inevitable. I'd rate it 4.5 stars, but round up to 5 stars for the final feelings I had upon finishing it: contentment, satisfaction, and a light regret there wasn't more. And goodness, one can only hope I'll have the same feelings when it's my turn to quit the world and unlike Ursula, not return.
Profile Image for Elizabeth .
398 reviews14 followers
June 12, 2013
This is one of those books that causes a book hangover. I can't easily go onto the next book (and I have three other holds in from the library at the same time so this presents a problem) because I can't stop thinking about Life After Life. In fact, I couldn't sleep last night for thinking of the book and finally needed to read under the covers for over an hour in the middle of the night before I could sleep.
I imagine I'm not alone in letting my mind wander on flights of fancy in the land of "what-if". What if I'd gone to a different college? Accepted this job offer instead of that one? Broke up with that boyfriend sooner? etc. In many ways, this novel is Kate Atkinson's exploration of that idea, beginning in the first moments of Ursula Beresford Todd's life.
What if the doctor can't arrive at the birth due to a snowstorm? What if he gets there just in time? What if he doesn't get there, and Ursula's mother takes matter into her own hands? What if she doesn't?
Key moments in Ursula's life play themselves out over and over. For her, time is a palimpsest, her life a page that has appeared, been scraped clean, and then written again, but each writing is a little different, an added comma, a missing exclamation point. As we read scenes over again, we gain perspective, depth, not into the possibilities of plot but the possibilities of character as well. We gain deeper insight into the secondary characters and Atkinson also makes something of a nature versus nurture argument. In one version of her life, 16 year old Ursula allows a big, loutish boy to kiss her against her will. This sets her up for a lifetime to be used and abused by domineering men. But in the version where she hits the lout and gets away, she lives her life on her own terms, able to define her relationships with men, rather than being defined by them.

The time and setting of this novel, 1910 through WWII, England and Germany, are supposed to play a pivotal role and although they do in the end, I was far more interested in the fleeting small changes from version to version of Ursula's life.

This is not a novel to read quickly, but one where there are nuances to be explored, and lyrical prose to be savored.
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
485 reviews808 followers
February 14, 2019
Dear Kate Atkinson. You're a perceptively gifted writer and your 2013 novel Life After Life captivated me early. I saw exactly what you were doing, liked it and loved the way you set the table. I felt like I was part of the Todd family, struggling through two world wars as a natural woman with an unnatural talent, déjà vu, and her ability to learn from past life experiences to change the future. I was turning the pages up to a point and the table dressing is beautiful. I can't recommend your novel because it didn't come with a meal. Not only is there no story here, I don't know if there's any "there" there.

After a tantalizing opening in which an Englishwoman named Ursula dines with the Führer in November 1930 and appears to calmly gun him down with her father's old service revolver, your lush novel takes us to Fox Corner, a spot in the English countryside where in February 1910, Sylvie Todd gives birth to a stillborn daughter, their doctor trapped in a snowdrift and unable to deliver the baby before she chokes on her umbilical cord. But in an alternate timeline, the doctor arrives just in the nick of time, and the baby survives. She's named Ursula. The characters in her family and her home are by far the most appealing part of the book.

Sylvie's society portraitist father died suddenly, cognac and a loose rug at the top of the stairs. His finances reveal massive gambling debts, but the beautiful Sylvie is rescued from "genteel and well-mannered poverty" at seventeen by Hugh Todd, a rising star in the banking world. Settling into an estate near Beaconsfield which Sylvie dubs "Fox Corner" due to its local wildlife, Sylvie names their children too: a pragmatic daughter Pamela, a pugnacious son Maurice and the average Ursula. Sylvie's classical education and propriety masks a coldness in her nature. Hugh is the family's rock, frequently bailing his flighty sister Izzie from one foolish affair or another.

Christmas was a dull affair. Izzie came and talked a great deal about nothing (or rather herself) before announcing that she had joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and was leaving for France as soon as the festivities were over.

"But, Izzie," Sylvie said, "you can't nurse or cook or type or do anything useful." The words came out harsher than she intended, but really Izzie was such a cuckoo. ("Flibbergibbet" was Mrs. Glover's verdict.)

"That's it then," Bridget said when she heard of Izzie's call to alms. "we'll have lost the war by Lent." Izzie never mentioned her baby. He had been adopted in Germany and Sylvie supposed he was a German citizen. How strange that he was only a little younger than Ursula but, officially, he was the enemy.

Then at New year, one by one, all the children came down with chicken pox. Izzie was on the next train to London as soon as the first spot erupted on Pamela's face. So much for Florence Nightingale, Sylvie said irritably to Bridget.

While Ursula survives the chicken pox, she succumbs to a powerful tide while on holiday in Cornwall and drowns. But in an alternate timeline, she's pulled from the surf by a recreational painter who happened to be nearby. The Todd family soon welcome a fourth child, a stout son Teddy. Also part of the household are their cook Mrs. Glover and a young housekeeper named Bridget. When Maurice flings his sister's doll Queen Solange out the attic window, Ursula crawls out into the night to retrieve it and falls to her death. But in an alternate timeline, something prompts Ursula to reconsider such a stunt. She ties a walking cane onto a lacrosse net to retrieve Queen Solange instead.

Life is short in Fox Corner, though, and Ursula and Teddy succumb to the Spanish flu after Bridget returns from an Armistice Day celebration in London infected. In an alternate timeline, Ursula senses something bad about the housekeeper's day trip and makes an effort to bar her from the house. When this fails, Ursula gets another chance in another timeline, shoving the housekeeper out the kitchen door and spraining her ankle. When this fails to deter her from her day trip, Ursula tries yet again, shoving Bridget down stairs and breaking her arm. The Spanish flu eradicated from their lives, Ursula has to explain her behavior to her mother.

Ursula feels that she's able to anticipate things before they happen. A neighbor's daughter is raped and murdered in the hedgerows but given the opportunity to relive her childhood, Ursula escorts the girl to safety. Raped herself by one of Maurice's college friends on her sixteenth birthday and pregnant, Ursula gets a mulligan on this as well, kicking the boy in the shins before he can get near her. One timeline finds her living through the Blitz in London as a clerical worker, while in another, she settles in Germany, where she marries, has a daughter and becomes friends with Eva Braun, offering her an opportunity to stop the horrors of the 20th century with one bullet in 1930.

"But if Hitler had been killed, before he became Chancellor, it would have stopped all this conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, wouldn't it?" The Six-Day War, as they had called it, had ended, the Israelis decisively victorious. "I mean, I do understand why the Jews wanted to create an independent state and defend it vigorously," Ursula continued, "and I always felt sympathy for the Zionist cause, even before the war, but, on the other hand, I can also understand why the Arab states are so aggrieved. But if Hitler had been unable to implement the Holocaust--"

"Because he was dead?"

"Yes, because he was dead. Then support for a Jewish homeland would have been weak at best."

"History is all about 'what ifs,'" Nigel said. Pamela's first-born, her favorite nephew, was a history tutor at Brasenose, Hugh's old college. She was treating him to lunch in Fortnum's.

Let me mention what I enjoyed about your novel, Mrs. Atkinson. The picture you paint of a family is remarkable. Every character has a personality and a certain role to play. My favorite is Izzie, a dingbat who doesn't know what she's going to do or say from moment to moment and sees her nieces and nephews as little more than props, and yet, she's the only aunt who visits them or is involved in their lives in any capacity. When Ursula seeks to abort her pregnancy, Izzie is the adult she goes to for help. Rather than remain static, the Todd family stays in flux, their comings and goings related with excellent prose and wonderful wit. Your descriptions of a bygone era are clear and fanciful.

It was as well, she thought, that the war had robbed her of any care for fashion. She was wearing, in order, from inner to outer--a short-sleeved vest, a long-sleeved vest, a long-sleeved pullover, a cardigan and stretched on top of it all her shabby old winter coat, bought new in Peter Robinson's two years before the war. Not to mention, of course, the usual drab underwear, a thick tweed skirt, gray wool stockings, gloves and mittens, a scarf, a hat and her mother's old fur-lined boots. Pity any man who was suddenly moved to ravish her. "Chance'd be a fine thing, eh?" Enid Barker, one of the secretaries, said over the balm and succor of the tea urn. Enid had auditioned for the part of plucky young London woman somewhere around 1940 and had been playing it with gusto ever since. Ursula chided herself for more unkind thoughts. Enid was a good sort. Terrifically skilled at typing tabulations, something Ursula had never quite got the hang of when she was at secretarial college. She had done a typing and shorthand course, years ago now--everything before the war seemed like ancient history (her own). She had been surprisingly adept. Mr. Carver, the man who ran the secretarial college, had suggested that her shorthand was good enough for her to train as a court reported at the Old Bailey. That would have been quite a different life, perhaps a better one. Of course, there was no way of knowing these things.

There's so much table dressing and set-up in Life After Life that after 50 pages, I had to check the backcover to confirm this novel had something to do with déjà vu. I didn't need a thrill ride, but didn't feel that you felt comfortable exploring the paranormal. I would've enjoyed this novel had it simply been about Ursula Todd and her mother. Any story would've done. You devote 90 pages to Ursula working as a rescuer during the Blitz and though well-written, it still comes across as a big info dump. I had to skim the last 100 pages. It's a close call for me, Mrs. Atkinson, but I can't recommend anyone devote time to a novel as resistant to story as this one.

Length: 120,601 words
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,376 reviews1,432 followers
July 27, 2017
A lovely and unusual book about reincarnation, free will and destiny.

Ursula Todd was born on a snowy day in February with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. That was the first time she died...

I loved how Kate Atkinson built this story through seemingly insignificant details. As the reincarnations progress, layers are added upon layers, so that by the end of this tale, it is a rich tapestry of events, emotions and possibilities.

I was surprised by the open-endedness of this story. I feel like Atkinson wrote a tale that reads like real life- it has the meanings that we assign it. Nothing more, nothing less.

I listened to the audiobook of Life After Life and it was very good. A few times, I wished that I had the physical book in front of me so that I could double check a date or detail. Other than that, the narration was excellent.

This story has me wondering about life, reincarnation and all of it. If, as so many world religions say, there are parts of us that are immortal, wouldn't we all go a bit bonkers after millennia of existence? Would we get bored of it? Would we ever choose to not come back? What's the bigger picture?

Anyway, this book will make you wonder, question and dream about existence. Which, in my mind, is one of the highest functions of a book.

Recommended for fans of historical fiction, spirituality and life itself. I think Atkinson has written a masterpiece.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,338 reviews695 followers
May 5, 2023
This is the first book that I wanted to re-read right away. Atkinson is genius. It's a story of a woman, Ursula Todd, and her life……….which ends and begins again and again and again. It's a novel take on the idea of past lives. In Atkinson's book, Ursula comes back as herself over and over again, just making different decisions at critical points in her life. She is unaware of her past lives, she only has "feelings" about what to do. What I found interesting, is that in one of her more "evolved" lives, she actually is placed in a sanitarium because of her grasp of reality is unsettling. Are clairvoyants often mistaken for insane? Perhaps. It's an initially intimidating tome in that it's over 500 pages. Yet, I want to reread it to be more aware of all the characters and their parts in Ursula's lives and how they affect her or she affects them. It's a bit slow in the beginning as Ursula dies right after being born so there are many restarts. I also love how Atkinson made Ursula's mother, Sylvie, as being a major part, almost like Sylvie is reliving her own life, only she makes almost the same choices life after life. Great novel. Great idea. Very easy to read. And very funny and touching in places. A must read.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,133 reviews8,140 followers
January 3, 2016
What if you could go back and kill Hitler? I think that's a question many people have asked themselves in their lives. It's one of the biggest "what ifs" of the last century. And in this novel, it was the plot point I was most in denial about.

I was fearful that such a question as the premise of a novel--as the opening scene shows our main character, Ursula Todd, shooting Hitler--would be gimmicky. But we are immediately transported back to 1910 when Ursula is born on a cold snowy night. And dies. Then she's born again, makes it a few years, and dies. And so on and so forth, the novel proceeds.

We follow Ursula as she grows up in rural England during the first and second world wars. She's from an eclectic family, with many close siblings, an adoring father, and infuriating aunt. There's a strong sense of the pastoral, of the importance of nature. And really I think in a way, this novel is a love letter to England's resilience.

It's also almost solely about Ursula's agency. Atkinson is commenting, through so many diverging narratives, on the opportunities of women during this time period, and how Ursula, through her decisions, ultimately shapes her future and the futures of those with whom she comes in contact. The plot to kill Hitler recedes so far into the background we nearly forget it exists for much of the book. I think what's most successful about this story is also what makes it so frustrating. It's shadowy and inconclusive. We see Ursula die, and we just want to watch her live a full life and do it right. But when we finally do, we are left with ambiguity.

In the end, I appreciate the story's opaqueness. It was extremely thought provoking and left me with so much to chew on. Though there were sections that dragged, in hindsight they're relevant and necessary to the story, so I can forgive their pacing. And after all that's said, I did read it in two days; I just couldn't put it down. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,163 reviews512 followers
November 30, 2017
One character show up in different historical moments of the Blitz during WWII.

Reincarnation? Deja vue? Perhaps. Like young Ursula's drawing of a snake with his tail in his mouth, which the psychiatrist, Dr. Kellet, deemed a symbol of the circularity of the universe. 'Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now,' he said.

It would have been a scary thought for Sylvie, who refused to drink the tea offered by Dr Kellet from his Russian samovar. Any tea out of anything else than a china teapot was undrinkable according to her own believes.
'How gnomic,' Sylvie said stiffly.

Dr Kellet steepled his hands an propped his chin on them. 'You know,' he said to Ursula, 'I think we shall get on very well. Would you like a biscuit?'

There was one thing that puzzled her. The photograph of Guy, lost at Arras in his cricketing whites was missing from the side table. Without meaning to - it was a question - she said to dr Kellet, 'Where is the photograph of Guy?' and Dr Kellet said, 'who is Guy?'

It seemed even the instability of time was not to be relied upon.
What wondrous life Ursula lead!

It was another samovar in a Russian Tea Room many years later, that would bring the future in a veil of fog to her. Like bomb-dust, she thought, yet she had never been bombed.

The future waited for her. She was there before. She was never there before. The past would leek into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Time was out of joint, that was for certain.

'Time isn't circular,' she said to dr Kellet. 'It's like a ... palimpsest.'

'And memories are sometimes in the future.'

Ursula Beresford Todd was a witness ...


I was a bit busy while reading the book. Too many interruptions and way too many late night efforts to catch up with it. Hence my really big confusion. I need to reread this book in retrospect.

I only grasped the story almost right at the end. 1910. The birth and death of Ursula. Before that I was questioning the meaning of the tales, which never lead to any endings. I questioned my desire to keep on reading a senseless, yet very well-written set of novellas. The only common denominator was Ursula as protagonist in them all. Her family constantly featured in all of them, but each time with different outcomes. Each segment ended with 'Darkness fell'. It was confusing to say the least. No forewarning of any kind. What if... "What if we had the chance to do it again and again … until we finally get it right?" asks one of the characters near the end. Life after Life is about being given that chance.

I'm borrowing from the Independent UK review by Rachel Hore to provide a glimps into the novel: (this review saved my life after reading the book! Read it before you make an attempt! I did not. :-))

Overall, it's safe to say that the early narrative follows the following course: Ursula is the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, brought up in an idyllic English upper-middle-class country home, sister to the soulless and pragmatic Maurice and jolly-hockey-sticks Pamela. She's an engaging girl, but quirky, with a tendency to fits of what her despairing mother calls "déjà-vu". Teddy, the sunny family darling, arrives soon after, then, finally, Jimmy, conceived after Hugh's return from Flanders Fields. Swelling the dramatis personae are disreputable Aunt Izzie – ripe to play a pivotal role in many of Ursula's crises – Mrs Glover the dour cook, and Bridget, the plain-faced Irish maidservant.

Beyond this basic set up, all bets are off...

Eva Braun and Hitler would appear in the fog like bomb-dust. Real and clear. A brutal war in graphic detail would populate a future spilling into the past and present. A, kind-of, biographical novel emerged from it all. A very good one. An excellent one. Towards the end time moved backwards. All the time. And forward again with leaps and bounds. Two world wars featured strongly.

I escaped, confused, but unscathed. An atmospheric, suspenseful, richly-textured, literary tale nestled in my foggy brain. It could have been five brilliant stars if I was able to grasp this light touch to a grizzly period in Britain and Germany's history better. Thanks to my good mood four stars celebrate an excellent author at work here.

A challenging experience. Worth the read though.

PS: GR friends made the experience so much more enlightening with comments like these in their brilliant reviews:
Will Byrnes: She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial.

And Steve: Typically I’m suspicious of devices that quantum physics, even at its strangest, can’t explain...

Marita: Ursula may have a vivid imagination, but so has Kate Atkinson. She seems to explore a zillion what if scenarios as Ursula is given life after life in Life after Life.

Don't despair. It's an unusual literary style to follow, but not impossible to appreciate in the end. :-)
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