Monday, February 15, 2016

The Struggles With Life After Life

When reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, I found myself questioning whether or not the way the narrative reads works well for a reader. The aspect that she plays with, in a sense reincarnation, is a fascinating form to take on in a narrative. However, when reading the novel, several questions left me wondering how well this form of reincarnation worked and whether or not it is suited better for a different mode to be played out in. For example, when reading this novel, I was instantly reminded of an episode from the show Community entitled Remedial Chaos Theory. Within the episode, the character of Abed rolls a dice to decide who would answer the door and get the pizza. The episode then repeats itself around the dice roll, playing different scenarios of what would have happened if a different character was selected to go and get the pizza. This novel reminded exactly of that episode. In addition, the novel also reminded me of the pick your own storyline books that were popular. Within these books, the reader would get an interactive choice where they could follow specific storylines with a character to help choose their fate. Although Atkinson did not allow for the reader to do this in her novel, it felt close to the same kind of set up. Whenever Ursula would die, a new storyline would unfold for the reader to read and enjoy.

One of the problems I discovered myself having as a reader, at both the start of the novel and then throughout, was trying to push aside the notion of knowing the main character would inevitably die at some point. On more than one occasion I found myself flipping a few pages ahead to see if one the chapter titles were going to show up soon. At first I was really interested in the ways the author would have Ursula die. Would it be in a fire? Childbirth again? Something to do with the war? All these questions floated around in my head and it did lead to some suspenseful moments for myself. The problem I found, however, was I was still expecting death whenever a chapter would eventually come to an end. Due to this, as a reader, it was often challenging to try and focus more on what was happening in the story instead of letting the mind wander to what the next reason may be for Ursula’s untimely demise.

Another issue I was forced to wrap my head around was the idea of reincarnation within the book. The novel itself hints at reincarnation as the reason Ursula was continuously dying and then being reborn with hidden knowledge of the future that she didn’t understand. The problem that I was faced with was more the fact that this didn’t line up with the Buddhist tradition of reincarnation. Within the context of the religion, reincarnation doesn’t focus on a sole person being reborn over and over again within the same life. When a person passes away, they reincarnate into a different being based on the life that they lived before. Atkinson does a good job of laying out the foundation of reincarnation through her character of Dr. Kellett, who explains this belief to Ursula. The thought that then comes to mind is whether or not this is the belief that Atkinson has about reincarnation. It would make sense since she does reference several religions throughout the novel (Catholicism, Anglican, Buddhist, Judaism) and it feels as though her own struggles with beliefs, whether or not she had them, could have leaked into this novel as well.

Within the construct of the play on time that she does in the novel, a final issue that was taken was the simple question: why should I care? By the end of the novel, I was more interested in the play on time throughout the book than I was with the main character herself. It felt as though no matter what Ursula did or fixed, in the end it didn’t matter. Even when she finally lived to an old age and passed away, she was reborn, and everything in that story no longer mattered. Granted, it did make sense to tell the story, or how else would Ursula know the things that she did, but it still left me with the feeling that overall the story told was diminished. Even with her knowledge of Hitler, she was unable to kill him. She was able to avoid being raped, going through a horrible abortion, and eventually being killed by an abusive husband, but did it matter? The second she died in that timeline, the new one would start and she could avoid the dangers that would come her way.

This novel felt like it was trying to convey a single message. The first idea comes from Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 with the idea that the past does not want to be changed. Despite Ursula’s knowledge of World War II and her different attempts to change the outcome for herself and the world, she is unable to do so. Ursula seemed destined to be a lonely character, with death being her only love. Towards the end of the novel she even says that going into the darkness must be what true love feels like. No matter which live she lives in any story she never properly falls in love with a man. In one occasion she does get married, but to an abusive husband. In another, she marries a german man and gets stuck in Germany. She is even relieved when her husband dies and does the best she can to try and save her daughter. In the end, it felt as though Atkinson wanted the reader to understand that even with an insight to the future, the past does not want to be changed.

Overall, despite the grievances filed above, the book was an enjoyable read. The focus on the constant changing story of Ursula made me continue to read the novel all the way through. The content, based around an English family during World War I and World War II was an interesting area to focus a novel around and one that I had yet to see before. As stated though, it was difficult to read and not think about when/how Ursula would die again. The reminders of reincarnation left me wondering whether or not Atkinson wanted me to believe the story was based around the very idea. Finally, despite the area in which the plot takes place, the question still remained on whether or not any reader should care what happens to Ursula in the present if the story will change as soon as she dies.


  1. I have not read 11/23/63 (although I plan to watch it), but I was intrigued that King or the novel puts forth "the idea that the past does not want to be changed." In Life after Life, the only two pasts that seemed to resist change were Ursula's untimely death (I don't know that I would consider dying from a headache at age 57 death from old age) and Hitler's life. The other aspects of the past did seem malleable, for example the number of times that Nancy lives or dies. But I agree with your struggles concerning the narrative; I particularly struggled with the large cast of characters; I understand only running into Derek Oliphant or Jurgen Fuchs once and then quickly learning from those mistakes. However, I found the inclusion of the youngest brother Jimmy unnecessary; he didn't make any difference in the timelines and his unexplained absence at the end seemed logical. I also thought a lot of text was spent introducing us to the Brenner sisters only to quickly discard them even though they could have been useful in the future attempts on Hitler's life.

  2. While I did actually really like the book (honestly my favorite so far), I do agree that it plays with your head and you start not to care about if the main character dies. In fact, I found myself rooting for her to die. I felt bad about the events of her life (especially the rape and the abusive husband) and knew that death was an easy way out for her to redo, knowing she wouldn't make the same mistake twice. That's a weird mindset to be in, and it means that I was not necessarily invested in Ursula's life because it might be erased soon.

    The fact that Ursula only dies once during the Snow chapters (that I remember) strikes me as interesting. Surely that scenario might play out in a variety of ways that ends in Ursula's death. Statistically, it seems that that scenarios is MORE likely to end in death than Ursula living. That makes me think that there are versions that Atkinson doesn't include, which implies there are other scenarios later in Ursula's life that we miss. I don't know where I'm going with this, but I just thought it was interesting. I wonder what versions we might be missing.