I don’t judge books by their covers, although I do appreciate a clever design. I also don’t judge books by the awards they’ve been nominated for and maybe won. That said, when I book by an author I have previously read and enjoyed is shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2013 and wins the Costa Book Award I think I’ve got my hands on something special. Was that the case with Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life?
I bought this book in 2013 following the publicity that followed Atkinson winning the Costa. Unlike most new books I buy this one then sat on the shelf for month after month, I would pick it up when ready for a new book, read the back of it, read the first couple of pages and think “hmmmmm not the right book for now” and slowly put it back on the shelf pondering when I would be in the mood to read this book.
In early 2014 I came to the conclusion that I would never be in the mood to read this book and in fact I should just start it and let the prose steal me away from reality. There are things in life we’d never choose to do and yet when forced to by circumstances we never look back. I was going to begin reading with that mentality. My eyes and emotions open to the characters and stories waiting to be whisked away.
Life after Life became for me, page after page, week after week of dull grey lifeless reading. I just didn’t care about Ursula. I wasn’t moved by each of her deaths. In fact I was often relieved when the darkness came as it meant I’d finished a chapter and could put the book down till the next time I tried to tackle it (reader’s quirk in that unless absolutely necessary I can’t put a book down in the middle of a chapter). I definitely didn’t care for the forgettable, depressing, supporting characters that came into the many lives of Ursula. Atkinson puts her main character through some really emotional and hard hitting lives, as a child she finds the murdered body of a childhood friend, she is raped at 16 and subsequently suffers blood poisoning from a botched illegal abortion, a victim of domestic abuse, friend to Eva Braun, starving in the ruins of Berlin. And yet, as quickly as these things happen, and they do Atkinson is unable to dedicate time to any one branch of Ursula’s lives, they are forgotten. With few foundations laid for each storyline and with death coming so quickly what should be horrific emotionally punching events left me little more than a raised eyebrow.
I never read other people’s reviews of a book before I read it, I don’t like to open my mind to influence preferring to go in as a blank canvas. On completing the book I took at look at what people on Goodreads had to say. I think it is fair to say there is a trend of “I wanted to enjoy this book but I couldn’t”. No one disputes that Atkinson is a great writer but many talk of “floundering for weeks” clawing their way to the end.
Life after life didn’t work for me. I love the concept of a “what if” book. But I think Atkinson tried to fit in too many. In doing so I tired of the characters, I didn’t commit to the new paths and I found myself willing her to hurry up and bring the death about. I’m sure there are many out there (some judges as a starter) who would disagree with me but in my opinion there was no wonder in this book, nothing clever about the plot lines and believe it or not the concept that we can live our lives again and again with different outcomes isn’t the most implausible thing in this book, but I won’t say what is as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.