Monday, May 19, 2014

Darkness fell swiftly, at first an enemy, but then a friend

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is like one of those "chose your own adventure" stories. Except you (the reader) aren't doing the choosing. The author did and wrote down all her versions.

Ursula Todd keeps reliving her life over again. Each time she dies, and she dies a LOT, she starts again with a vague recollection of what happened last time. She doesn't know this is happening to her. She just knows she has a very strong sense of deja vu. Strong enough that without really knowing why, she makes little changes that vastly alter the course of her life. Of course, each one ends in death and we begin again.

Ursula is born each time a snowy night in 1910. Her lives sometimes leave her in this decade; other times she makes it to the 1940s and World War II. We spend a lot of time seeing the same or at least very similar scenes, play out in different ways. Characters may play an important role or they made fade into the background. It has little wisps of the Butterfly Effect where a small change in the past makes a big difference in the future, although this doesn't seem to be the point of the novel.

Despite the fact that this isn't exactly my favorite time period to read about, I was still pulled into the story. I wanted to see what would happen to Ursula this time. Would she be able to make things better? Would this time around be much much worse? Atkinson managed to bring to life how terrible war was for everyone.

Overall I liked the structure of the novel, and kudos to Atkinson for keeping things organized because it would be very easy to make a mess of this style, but overall the book didn't stick with me. I think part of that had to do with the length. I don't mind long books but this one seemed to get too repetitive at times, and while I realize repetition is sort of the point of a reincarnation novel, it doesn't mean I'm not going to get bored with things at times.

One criticism I have, which is really a minor one and the cause of me thinking way too much about these sort of details*, is the fact that while Ursula is making changes to her life, everyone else is pretty much following the same script. Ursula is obviously our main character, but what does this mean for the others? The more Ursula relives her life, the more I realized that everyone else was just decoration to her story. Sure, maybe decoration that she interacts with. Or decoration that was a real asshole. But still. It only exists to fill in her story. And again, I get it, that's usually what happens to secondary characters in a book. But it's not supposed to feel that way. You're supposed to think of these people as having their own lives, hopes, dreams, wants, desires, free will, even if you can't see them exercising it. And maybe they are making changes, we just don't notice cos we're watching things from Ursula's point of view, but I didn't totally get that impression. Maybe that has to do with the fact that the other characters aren't really fleshed out.

*See Harry Potter & plumbing

Title quote from page 84

Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life. Back Bay Books, 2013