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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I love Kate Atkinson. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my favourite books.  From Ruby’s first bursting into life, through to the colourful characters, to the drawing together of breathtaking coincidences, the whole thing was satisfying and original and funny. The family set up of Life After Life faintly shadows Museum. As with Museum’s Ruby, the story follows a female protagonist, Ursula Todd (=Tod = Death), from birth. There is a strong older sister (Pamela/Patricia), and a hateful older sibling (Maurice/Gillian). There’s even a lovable younger sibling (Teddy/Pearl), although Life’s parents Sylvie and Hugh are much more gentle and loving (mostly) than Bunty and George. However, instead of Museum’s one life changing event, Life After Life takes us through the different ways in which life would have unravelled if Ursula had died at various hair raising points in her life after being born in 1910. It’s a bit like one of those children’s books where you make the choices and end up with different endings. Or a genteel version of the “who’s going to be injured next?” game you play when you watch Casualty. A couple of World Wars, as well as other tragic scenarios, are involved, and you can’t fault the detailed recreations of these grim times. Also intricate plotting is one Atkinson’s strong points, and this skill is well put to use here to develop this complicated conceit of the different endings. However the overall result is a bit… technical. The main problem is one of ambition. It’s an ambitious conceit and the main problem comes about because of the question of how the events in people’s lives shape them – a lot, according to Atkinson in her portrayal of Ursula. But this throws the usual patterns of character development up into the air, chops them all up, and the pieces land up in a jumble. While Hugh (Ursula’s father), Pamela, Maurice and Teddy have pretty constant characteristics throughout, Ursula’s mother and Ursula, for example, herself end up with some wildly varying characteristics in the different endings. Some of the story branches are clearly cul-de-sacs early on in their development and go on for too long, and although I have to say that Atkinson does a good job with not making the actual gory endings too predictable, it’s difficult for the reader to invest too much in a character when you know the end is nigh and a fresh one is on its way. Some of the endings too have Ursula come across as a bit passive – a litany of tragic events that propel her towards doom. I so wanted to like this. The central conceit is fascinating, and if anyone was going to be the writer to pull it off, it would have been Kate Atkinson. It will stay with you after you’ve finished it. Each plight of Ursula’s is mapped out with Atkinson’s trademark precise, almost detached prose, emphasising the catastrophic by contrasting it with the matter of fact.   But it could have done with a good edit – the length of some of the sub-stories really verges on the tedious. And since the one constant, stand out thing that follows Ursula is the shadow of her alternative histories, which compels her to do the odd irrational things to avoid her fate, it would have been more involving to see more made of this. But if it is difficult to like, at least it has ambition behind it and it does make you think, even if it doesn’t make you feel.

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