Thursday, March 21, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is probably my favorite living author (though, as a rule, I'm not prone to absolute statements - hence, "probably"), and while I've loved her last few books about Jackson Brodie (CASE HISTORIES was a revelation), they did not make me set down the book reverently after finishing the final page and wish I could read them again for the first time. They did not give me the feeling, page after page, that I was reading something extraordinary, something brilliant, possibly the author's best work. LIFE AFTER LIFE did. I would give almost anything to be able to read it again for the first time.

LIFE AFTER LIFE follows Ursula from the moment she is born (or not) on February 11, 1910. "'Ursula,' Sylvie said. 'I shall call her Ursula. It means little she-bear.'" The first time, the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and she is stillborn. But this is not the only possibility. When the doctor arrives in time, he is able to save her. Will she survive the influenza epidemic? A child murderer? An abusive husband? The Blitz? Will she change the course of World War II (and the world)? Atkinson deftly weaves a story of infinite layers, going over and over the same pivotal events with a delicate brush, exploring how the tiniest of changes can have far-ranging effects on the future.

Ursula is born feeling the weight of these layers of possibilities. "The past was a jumble in her mind, not the straight line that it was for Pamela." She has memories or impressions of things that will happen, but she learns not to talk about them. She does, however, follow her instincts, acting with no apparent purpose, but for the whispers of her mind, the echoes of other possible worlds. Atkinson brutally repeats a story with nuance after nuance ending in tragedy. It's an extraordinary reading experience, to mourn at once in so many different ways, to hope in so many different ways.

This sounds confusing and hard to keep straight, but it isn't. Atkinson has managed to create a world in which many different realities are simultaneously true (what is true, really?) and layered so skillfully that they can coexist in the reader's mind.

I read LIFE AFTER LIFE on my Kindle, and I highlighted about a quarter of it. I really expected to write a tome of a review, but I'm too envious of first-time readers to say too much and spoil the experience.

Available April 2.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title from the publisher. I will also be purchasing a hard copy.

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