Life After Life

I can clearly recall the first time I experienced the feeling of deja vu. It happened during the extraordinarily hot summer after my second grade year on a day most of my extended family was in town. Our gathering was somewhat desultory, wilting beneath the heat as we we were, and when my parents learned it was at least ten degrees cooler in Presque Isle, a town just a short drive north of us, we made a caravan and relocated our party to a breezy stretch of Lake Huron for the day’s duration. In the late afternoon I went for a walk with one of my uncles to get ice cream, and as we walked back along the beach I was overcome with the idea that I had been there before – that I had done this exact thing with these exact people just as the sun was setting just so – before. It was incredibly anxiety-producing and when I tried to describe it to my parents the term they provided – deja vu – and their explanation of it – only mildly calmed my anxiousness. I only knew I did NOT want it to happen again.

But of course, it did – a fleeting moment talking to a friend, rocking Duncan late into the evening, on a hike with my father, cooking a meal side by side with Sam – it’s always disconcerting and often powerful enough to make me question my religious faith – maybe the Indian religions are on to something, and life just begins again and again in new body. Frankly, it’s as appealing to me as Heaven – I know this world and am in awe of how broken and beautiful it is at the same time.

I’d read about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Lifearound the blogosphere but it came out while Duncan was a newborn and for several months I didn’t feel like I had the brain space to tackle it, despite my devotion to her Jackson Brodie series. My dad brought me his copy on a recent visit after he finished it for a book club he resents joining. He generally has an unique way of trying to interest people in the books he appreciates, and this one was no different.

“We complain about terrorists threats but let me tell you – read this book and you’ll learn what real terrorism is – try London during World War II,” he said, handing me his battered copy of Life After Life. “That was terrorism.”

Which, you know. I learned a LOT about the European side of WWII from reading this book, but I am not sure that would be Atkinson’s ideal introduction.

This book – I loved it, actually. At first I thought the premise was a little trite for Atkinson but as the book grew and the characters grew, I found it fascinating to think through how a single choice here or a different action there affected Ursula’s life. And (spoiler alert at this point, in case you haven’t read the book) I found it especially fascinating how Ursula continued to learn subconsciously from her past. Like so much of Atkinson’s work, the character development propelled the book – she always manages to create characters I could spend endless amounts of time with. And I did learn so much about what people in London and Berlin went through during World War II – I never realized how prejudice my reading about that particular war was until reading this book. That said, I felt like there were two different ideas explored in the book. First of all, the idea of reincarnation, and second of all, the whole “what would happen if someone had killed Hitler” thing, which frankly, I could have done without. Compared to the rest of the novel, which was heartbreaking, stunning and generally intriguing, the Hitler assassination felt like an unnecessary diversion – fun for the author to finally explore but ultimately not necessary to the overall set up of the novel. I honestly think if her marriage to the (at first) unassuming Nazi and time spent with Eva Braun had been the some total of Ursula’s life spent in Nazi Germany, the book actually would have been more powerful. I also didn’t like particularly how that part of Ursula’s story was positioned at the beginning of the novel, so the entire time, as a reader, I was waiting for it, when so much else was happening in the book.

Overall, though, I thought the book was brilliant and I look forward reading her follow up – God in Ruins this fall sometime. Even when I’m not sure what to make of Atkinson, her work is always, always worth reading.

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