“You can step in the same river but the water will always be new.”
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’ Ursula said. ‘If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’
‘But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood.’
If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought.
Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too.
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A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café. She had come in from the rain and drops of water still trembled like delicate dew on the fur coats of some of the women inside. A regiment of white-aproned waiters rushed around at tempo, serving the needs of the Münchner at leisure – coffee, cake and gossip.
He was at a table at the far end of the room, surrounded by the usual cohorts and toadies. There was a woman she had never seen before – a permed, platinum blonde with heavy make-up – an actress by the look of her. The blonde lit a cigarette, making a phallic performance out of it. Everyone knew that he preferred his women demure and wholesome, Bavarian preferably. All those dirndls and knee-socks, God help us.
The table was laden. Bienenstich, Gugelhupf, Käsekuchen. He was eating a slice of Kirschtorte. He loved his cakes. No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn’t diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed to public view. Not a manly man. He smiled when he caught sight of her and half rose, saying, ‘Guten Tag, gnädiges Fräulein,’ indicating the chair next to him. The bootlicker who was currently occupying it jumped up and moved away.
‘Unsere Englische Freundin,’ he said to the blonde, who blew cigarette smoke out slowly and examined her without any interest before eventually saying, ‘Guten Tag.’ A Berliner.
She placed her handbag, heavy with its cargo, on the floor next to her chair and ordered Schokolade. He insisted that she try the Pflaumen Streusel.
‘Es regnet,’ she said by way of conversation. ‘It’s raining.’
‘Yes, it’s raining,’ he said with a heavy accent. He laughed, pleased at his attempt. Everyone else at the table laughed as well. ‘Bravo,’ someone said. ‘Sehr gutes Englisch.’ He was in a good mood, tapping the back of his index finger against his lips with an amused smile as if he was listening to a tune in his head.
The Streusel was delicious.
‘Entschuldigung,’ she murmured, reaching down into her bag and delving for a handkerchief. Lace corners, monogrammed with her initials, ‘UBT’ – a birthday present from Pammy. She dabbed politely at the Streusel flakes on her lips and then bent down again to put the handkerchief back in her bag and retrieve the weighty object nesting there. Her father’s old service revolver from the Great War, a Webley Mark V.
A move rehearsed a hundred times. One shot. Swiftness was all, yet there was a moment, a bubble suspended in time after she had drawn the gun and levelled it at his heart when everything seemed to stop.
‘Führer,’ she said, breaking the spell. ‘Für Sie.’
Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.
Ursula pulled the trigger.
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** Spoiler Alert **
If you've read Life After Life and would like to discover how the book came to be, read Kate's author note and list of sources. This does contain spoilers so if you haven't yet read the book, you may prefer to do so before reading on.
"I was born at the end of 1951 and grew up feeling that had I just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it. Looking back this strikes me as odd for as a child I was never aware of those around me talking about it. It was almost as though it had never happened, for although my family experienced the war they rarely mentioned it. It’s only recently I’ve come to realize - and understand - that once it was over and people faced the grim reality of the peace, all they wanted to do was to forget – not just the destruction wrought on us but the greater destruction that we rained down on Europe. We had reduced Germany to rubble and we were not necessarily proud of that, nor of the endless moral compromise that war necessitates. People move on, history remains..."
'Hilary Mantel, a rival for the Women's Prize, once said that Atkinson 'delivers to the populace its jokes and its tragedies as efficiently as Dickens once delivered his, though Atkinson has a game-plan more sophisticated than Dickens's'. This is Atkinson's best book to date, and she is as worthy as Mantel for the Prize'
'Atkinson's achievement is to convince the reader that being disorientated about exactly what has happened so far is acceptable and enjoyable...deftly constructed...The innovative narrative structure of Life After Life reasserts the best there is to hope for in human existence'
Times Literary Supplement
'If you enjoyed The Time Traveller's Wife, you will love this inventive fantasy from the author of the Jackson Brodie series...marvel at Atkinson's skill in carrying off this absorbing feat of imagination'
'A profound read that finds light in the darkest times'
'Playful, intelligent and beguiling...Astoundingly accomplished'
'One of the most innovative, pacy plots of any recent novel'
'Atkinson's great skill is in portraying the exquisite tapestry of [life] with warmth, humour and immense humanity'
'Atkinson, like Audrey Niffenegger before her with the similarly ambitious The Time Traveller's Wife, is a confident enough writer to bear her high concept along well above water level'
'Life After Life is to be applauded for its inventiveness, and for reminding us of lives vanished without trace or memory in the waste and monstrosity of war'
'Startlingly brilliant...endlessly rich'
James Walton - Reader's Digest
'World events, reimagined characters and second chances told with warmth, wit and consummate skill'
Fanny Blake - Woman & Home
'Stunned with tiredness thanks to Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE. Couldn't stop reading. Terrific novel, may be her best yet. So enthralling, so well written, so beautifully constructed. Really, I can't fault it. Will be one of my books of the year'
Val McDermid (Twitter)
'Absolutely brilliant...it reminded me a bit of her first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which is one of my most favourite books ever'
Marian Keyes (newsletter)
'Brilliant...more than just a terrific story about the impact of one existence on another. Atkinson can knock the socks off any rival in terms of skill and style...The tour de force of the book, though, is Atkinson's recreation of the Blitz...unputdownable'
'Deliriously inventive, sharply imagined and ultimately affecting...The scenes set in Blitz-stricken London will stay with me forever...Atkinson has written something that amounts to so much more than the sum of its (very many) parts. It almost seems to imply that there are new and mysterious things to feel and say about the nature of life and death, the passing of time, fate and possibility.. . [a]magnificently tender and humane novel'
Julie Myerson - Observer
'Merging family saga with a fluid sense of time and an extraordinarily vivid sense of history at its most human level. A dizzying and dazzling tour de force'
Amber Pearson - Daily Mail
'What makes Atkinson an exceptional writer – and this is her most ambitious and most gripping work to date – is that she does so with an emotional delicacy and understanding that transcend experiment or playfulness. Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us'
Alex Clark - Guardian
'Truly brilliant...Think of Audrey Niffenegger's The TimeTraveler's Wife or David Nicholl's One Day...[or] Martin Amis's Times Arrow, his rewinding of the Holocaust that was shortlisted for the Booker. Life After Life should have the popular success of the former and deserves to win prizes, too. It has that kind of thrill to it, of an already much-loved novelist taking a leap, and breaking through to the next level...This is a rare book that you want, Ursula-like, to start again the minute you have finished'
Helen Rumbelow - The Times
'There aren't enough breathless adjectives to describe Life After Life: Dazzling, witty, moving, joyful, mournful, profound. Wildly inventive, deeply felt. Hilarious. Humane.
Simply put: it's ONE OF THE BEST NOVELS I'VE READ THIS CENTURY'
Gillian Flynn, No.1 New York Times author of Gone Girl, and Sharp Objects
'Kate Atkinson’s new novel is a box of delights. Ingenious in construction, indefatigably entertaining, it grips the reader’s imagination on the first page and never lets go. If you wish to be moved and astonished, read it. And if you want to give a dazzling present, buy it for your friends'