Ursula Todd, the main character of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” dies in the first few pages of the novel. And then she dies again. And again. And again. In fact, Ursula’s constant dance with death is the novel’s premise — and it’s a fun one.
Let’s be clear though: This is not the happy kind of fun. Ursula spends most of “Life After Life” dying tragic deaths. She dies so many times that the novel becomes almost sadistically comical. All of her deaths are either an accident or the result of some misfortune — she chokes on her umbilical cord, she drowns with her sister, she dies of the flu, a burning wall collapses on her, she tries to assassinate Hitler — the list goes on and on.
As Ursula lives and dies, her actions change. The ripples of consequences start small, and they only affect her immediate family. Soon, her actions are impacting the entire world. It’s entertaining to watch Ursula die death after death, and then watch her escape past lives’ deaths only to die again.
In some ways, all the dying is a bit of an overkill. When a character dies so many times, her death begins to lose emotional impact for the reader. But despite this loss, Atkinson never loses the chilling impact death has on her prose. Repeatedly, Atkinson beautifully and masterfully displays death.
Memories of her past lives halfway resurface to Ursula’s mind, and she doesn’t fully know what’s going on but also isn’t completely ignorant. She knows she has died before, but the full details escape her. Of course, the readers are almost equally confused.
Readers shouldn’t approach the novel questioning why Ursula keeps getting another chance at life. If you’re looking for an answer, you won’t find it, because Atkinson does not provide it. This is both pleasing and disappointing. While it is somewhat of a cop-out to leave this mystery unsolved, it is better that the question remains unanswered than Atkinson give her readers a cheesy, Star Trek-like sci-fi explanation.
“Life After Life” is not the kind of book you read quickly in one weekend. It is also not the kind of book you read and immediately move on with your life. “Life After Life” stays with you like a corpse that decomposes. You will keep trying to unravel the book. It will leave you thinking about how the tiniest decisions can have both small and drastic impacts.
Despite the many lives Ursula lives in these pages, she still dies at the end every time. It is a somber and depressing moral that life can only end one way, with death. But despite the constant identical ending, Ursula’s many lives make up many compelling tales.