Life After Life: Discussion!

life-after-life_original

Ursula Todd’s life is a an Ouroboros, a snake eating its tail. She dies, she comes back. Each time she comes back she is Ursula Todd, a recreated version of the Ursula Todd that came before, only stronger. With each life she goes farther. Her first life (that we know of) ends before it begins. This is Life After Life.

Snow

11 February 1910

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.

No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.

Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thou­sand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.

Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

Dr. Fellowes should have been here,” Sylvie moaned. “Why isn’t he here yet? Where is he?” Big dewdrop pearls of sweat on her skin, a horse nearing the end of a hard race. The bedroom fire stoked like a ship’s furnace. The thick brocade curtains drawn tightly against the enemy, the night. The black bat.

“Yer man’ll be stuck in the snow, I expect, ma’am. It’s sure dreadful wild out there. The road will be closed.”

Sylvie and Bridget were alone in their ordeal. Alice, the parlor maid, was visiting her sick mother. And Hugh, of course, was chas­ing down Isobel, his wild goose of a sister, à Paris. Sylvie had no wish to involve Mrs. Glover, snoring in her attic room like a truf­fling hog. Sylvie imagined she would conduct proceedings like a parade-ground sergeant major. The baby was early. Sylvie was expecting it to be late like the others. The best-laid plans, and so on.

“Oh, ma’am,” Bridget cried suddenly, “she’s all blue, so she is.”

“A girl?”

“The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.”

“Not breathing? Let me see her. We must do something. What can we do?”

“Oh, Mrs. Todd, ma’am, she’s gone. Dead before she had a chance to live. I’m awful, awful sorry. She’ll be a little cherub in heaven now, for sure. Oh, I wish Mr. Todd was here. I’m awful sorry. Shall I wake Mrs. Glover?”

The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped sud­denly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.

Darkness fell.

She returns, dies as a toddler. She returns, dies as a child. She returns, dies as a young adult. Each death takes her further into life as she corrects the mistakes of the past with déjà vu.

Life After Life Collage

This is a book I should have finished days before I had to write this post. There are too many parts of the book I need to consider because it’s possible I’m wrapped around the axle and reading into things.

Desserts, for example. Desserts, puddings, tea–whatever you want to call it, not one chapter concludes without at least one mention of something sweet. Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake) alone is mentioned 4 times at least. I may have finished the book sooner had I not looked up every single dessert I came across. It has drinking game potential, and if you’re curious I’ve created a pinterest board of all the desserts mentioned in Life After Life as well as Queen Solange because I had to know what a wooden knitting doll looked like. Desserts are typically conclusions to a meal. Did they represent the many endings Ursula Todd experienced life after life; is it a counterpoint to the typically bitter end Ursula meets; is Kate Atkinson addicted to sugar?

Ursula’s name presented another dilemma for me, where dilemma is defined as the obsessive over-thinking one does over matters of questionable importance in light of world events. Ursula (the reader, really) is reminded often that her name means ‘little bear,’ but the name Ursula is also a saint who is believed to be the Christianized version of the goddess Freyja in Norse mythology who rules the afterlife. Freyja–if I’m getting my Norse mythology right, and it’s absolutely likely that I’m not–was responsible for carrying souls onto the next life/plain/afterlife/I have no idea what.

I just realized that my circular thinking works nicely with the Ouroboros theme of the book. Well played, Kate Atkinson.

Every time Ursula dies, we return to her birth. At first, this was confusing for me, but over time I became used to the format and began to remember dates and recognize where Ursula was in history. The trick with this book is to read significant portions of it at once. At first I would stop and start, and with a narrative that goes forwards and backwards with an every changing chain of events, immersing yourself for at least a few chapters is the way to go. I quickly learned that the best time for me to set the book down was when Ursula returned to her birth. It just made things easier for me to keep straight.

Small little quibble: I do not like the jacket design, not even a little, and I love roses. The UK version is so much better. A fox on the cover!

Which brings up another dilemma I over-thought: animals. Ursula lives at Fox Corner. Her first name means little bear and her last name means fox. So, she’s strong and crafty? She is rescued by a dog at least twice. There are chickens, rabbits, and at the end, kittens. Really, it’s never ending.)

The last one I’ll touch on here is whether the rest of the family knew what Ursula was doing. Without revealing spoilers, two characters towards led me to believe they were aware of Ursula’s ability to practice her life until it was perfect.

I enjoyed the book both for it’s creative premise and because Atkinson has a clever voice. Her witticisms were fun to read. Pamela’s character (I’m pretty sure that was Ursula’s conscience) was my favorite, but I’ll leave the rest of my commentary for the comment section to avoid spoilers.

Comments
18 Responses to “Life After Life: Discussion!”
  1. Ooh! I haven’t ever read along in the book group, but this book sounds really interesting! I’ll be checking it out for sure.

  2. I just finished this last night, and I’m still “wrapped around the axle and reading into things,” as you said.

    I really enjoyed the format of the book, though it did take me a while to get my bearings. (That’s a great tip to read large chunks and put the book down when she’s born again.) I loved the way the structure showed how small choices in Ursula’s life (and the lives of those around her) led to vastly different outcomes. Vastly. Yet it didn’t seem heavy-handed, and I admired that.

    One tiny sentence near the book’s end made me wonder if I really understood Atkinson’s premise: it was “practice makes perfect,” which I would have expected in reference to Ursula, but it wasn’t. I’m thinking that must be what you’re referring to above?

    Odds and ends: I agree, the British cover wins and is much truer to the tone of the book. And your Pinterest board is fabulous, though I’m startled to see my daughter has a wooden knitting doll; it was called something else when she got it for Christmas. And oddly, I just read the *other* novel entitled Life After Life that came out this year, by Jill McCorkle, and *that* main character is also rescued by a dog. I had a major deja vu moment myself when I read that plot twist in Atkinson.

    • Jules says:

      Yes. The surgical scissors (in a middle class woman’s bedside drawer? Unlikely) and when Teddy says “thank you” to her in the bar when it’s discovered that he isn’t really dead from the war. Those were two major ones that stand out, although there were other times that I wondered. I’ll have to go through my notes and make sure there wasn’t another blaring one that stood out, but those are the two I remember clearly.

      Yes, that another book is named the same was very confusing at first! I learned Kate Atkinson’s name real quick.

  3. Susan G says:

    I have not yet read the book so I skimmed your post (with my eyes squinted for spoilers the same way I watch the first scary minutes of “Supernatural”). This – my new favorite “Julesism” – “Ursula’s name presented another dilemma for me, where dilemma is defined as the obsessive over-thinking one does over matters of questionable importance in light of world events. ” Genius!

    • Jules says:

      Ha! It’s just that sometimes I think while I type and realize that I sound pretty silly calling things dilemmas and tragedies and whatnot. :)

      It’s hard writing these posts! I try to write them so that the person who hasn’t read the book has an idea of what went on, but doesn’t get any major spoilers. At the same time, I try to hit the major talking points so those who did read the book can talk about something in the comments. Near impossible, especially with this one, I tell you.

  4. Kathy says:

    I did get so confused! Darkness fell. I remember thinking, ” is what I think is happening really happening?” But then I wasn’t confused anymore and just so enjoyed the writing and the story. I loved this book.

    Needs must. :)

  5. Phaedra says:

    ACK! This book! At first, I wasn’t drawn in because when she’s dying as an infant, toddler, child & I just didn’t feel connected to the story and thought to myself, ‘is this all going to be more from the mother’s point of view?’ I kept setting it down & picking up other books. I finally picked it back up and made it 75% through, but life intervened in the form of birthday celebrating & waterpark adventures (meaning: no time to sit & read).

    I DO plan on finishing although I’m finding the WWII lives interminable (ha ha. Since all of her lives thus far are terminated that’s funny. See me here laughing at my own joke. I meant, monotonously protracted). Obviously, given the very first chapter, I’m assuming her misery during this period circles around/overlaps the decision to walk into that café.

    The things that prompt her being sent to Dr Kellet seem that they would be life changing for the other family members, too, and he brings forward the time is a continuum/circle/palimpsest idea in black & white for the reader. I wish the story would’ve featured more sessions with him. I guess it’s only to bring the ideas forth so we can make our own decisions. It is interesting to me that each life has some things that remain constant. I thought it would be more ‘butterfly effect’ where one small change changes everything including her siblings/parents lives. Which it does…and doesn’t. Some things seem to carry over into each & every life of Ursula’s.

    Love what you pointed out about her name possibilities. The connection with the afterlife would be a lovely little ‘in’ to the whole premise of the book.
    I think the UK cover is SO much better than the US version. Why do they always have to mess with things??!
    I have already noticed the ridiculous amount of desserts mentioned. Funny that you made a whole pin board. :)
    OK, I should probably FINISH this book so I can really add something more insightful to the comments. ;)

    • Jules says:

      I only got through it because I run the darn book club! But I’m glad I did. Once I established a routine, I was able to pull it together. Thanks for talking me through the panic last week. :)

      Are you surprised I created a pinboard? Please. ;)

      • Phaedra says:

        No. I am not surprised. And that’s why we love you.
        Plus, you Run This Darn Book Club and it’s the only one I’ve ever stuck with because it’s freakin’ awesome.

        • Jules says:

          Gasp! Thank you. {blush} If it wasn’t for all of you, I’d have a huge pile of books to read and an empty shelf of brainless novels. Now I have a large pile of books to read and an empty shelf of brainless novels.

  6. Kelly says:

    Loved this book! The beginning reminded me a bit of “The Time Travelers Wife” with the initial confusion in figuring out how it all worked. (Although I figured this one out much quicker.) I read it continually for about a week & so never felt pulled out or lost. And so interesting that you researched & found images of all the desserts! That’s not something that even occured to me; I think my brain just filed it under “weird English stuff,” except for the kirschtorte, which I was sorta familiar with. Nor did it occur to me how much the desserts are featured. This is a benefit of a book club, to see things that you yourself didn’t notice!

    The hardest parts for me to read (without spoilers) was her early adulthood, when that terrible misfortune happened to her and she married her first husband. It was hard to see her strong character so weak and I was glad that she “got through” all that & moved on. And it really made me dislike her mother; it was hard for me to get over that. That was shame, since I liked her so much more in the beginning. She (the mother) was quite fiesty and independent when she was young and became much more stodgy and set in her way as she aged.

    Kate Atkinson is just a terrific writer overall and one of my favorite books that I recommend to others is her mystery “Case Histories,” which I’ve pinned on the PIBC pinterest board. :)

    • Jules says:

      When I think of Kate Atkinson I think of Case Histories which always reminds me of you. I remember very clearly you pinning that book, and now I want to read it. I think she’s a fantastic writer. Her dialogue is tight–love it.

    • Melissa says:

      Good call on the analogy to “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” I also read it in two or three long sittings, so I caught on pretty quickly. I wish I had something insightful to add, but it’s been a couple months since I swept through the book. I really enjoyed it; the writing was solid, the characterizations complex, the sense of place very vivid (though some of that could be that I have spent some time in England and in Germany, including several vacations in Berchtesgaden, where the scenes with Hitler and Eva Braun took place). I sent the book to my mom for her birthday, and I will definitely seek out more of Kate Atkinson’s books.

  7. Erin says:

    I haven’t read the book (or the comments…yet), but I wonder if the animals are a play on Hindu reincarnation? You have me intrigued, I read the overview on Amazon, but haven’t picked it up, yet.

  8. After sitting on this book for months, I have to say that I still love this book. It is like an onion; you can just keep peeling back the layers and finding something else to ponder.

    *spoilers below*

    My take on the end is that it isn’t just Ursula who is living life after life; everyone is. It explains the variances on how her mother handled the birth, etc.

    The one “life” that bothered me was the one in which she was raped and then fell in with the abuser — it didn’t seem true to her core personality.

    I love that British book cover, by the way. And I’m checking out your Pinterest board now!

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Hi! I’m Jules.

I used to be an attorney, but it made me grumpy. Now I write about life, sweet and savory, as a wife and mother to two small boys. My knowledge of dinosaurs knows no bounds.

You can read more, including the meaning behind the name Pancakes and French Fries here. And, yes, I really am phenomenally indecisive.