Reading Room May 2013

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Life After Life
544 pages; Reagan Arthur Books
We've all felt it, the desire to return to a pivotal moment and handle it differently, changing (for the btter presumably) everything that follows. In Kate Atkinson's dazzling new novel, Life After Life (Reagan Arthur), the fantasy behind that reality turns out to be rivetingly complex. Born in the English countryside in 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies again and again, each time reaching an older age as she tries to avoid the mistakes of her previous existence. High concept? Sure. But with prose this good, it never reads like a gimmick. Ursula has no clear recollection of having lived before, just "sensations, as if a memory was being tugged reluctantly out of its hiding place." It's fascinating to watch her evolve into someone smarter, stronger, and more assertive. Not to say life ever gets easy. As Ursula grows tougher, so do the challenges she encounters. Though the lecher in the stairwell and the abusive husband who once preyed on her are no threat to the wise-up Ursula, in their place she faces the horrors of living under siege in London during World War II. But then she is an infant again, where "she could hear the delicate chink of cups on saucers....A man lifted her up and tossed her in the air and sugar cubes scattered across a lawn. There was another world but it was this one." Witnessing the rise of Hitler and the resulting carnage, and then moving back in time, Ursula confronts a twisted version of a timeless question: Knowing now what I will know then, what should I do?
— Karen Holt