I’ve read a lot of good books lately, but it’s been a long time since I was reading a book at one o’clock in the morning because I just had to know what happens next. EVERYONE has been talking about Life After Life, and I can tell you why – it’s freaking amazing, that’s why.
Life After Life is historical fiction with one speculative fiction twist. The main character, Ursula, dies moments after she is born, and, for lack of a better word, reboots. She starts her life over, with no memory of having lived before. Everything reboots. She dies and reboots over an over again, as a child and as an adult. The only thing that remains for her from each past experience is that at critical moments she experiences a feeling of dread and déjà vu. She feels compelled to keep the maid from going to London during the influenza epidemic, or compelled to convince her sister that they should make sandcastles instead of going swimming. But she doesn’t know why she feels compelled to do these things, and the results are uncertain (she has a hell of a time surviving that influenza epidemic, let me tell you).
Many people have reviewed this book so I’ll just touch on a couple of things and then urge you to go read it. One thread is that changing one thing can change your whole life. Sometimes that one thing is a big thing. In one version of her life she is raped, and in one version she fights off her attacker. Her life diverges drastically based on the outcome of the attack. Sometimes smaller things change, or even save, her life – she puts a doll in a drawer instead of leaving it out But many things stay the same no matter what, like her aunt’s wild nature, her mother’s bitter one, and her sister’s pragmatic loyalty.. I found this fascinating, and I’d love to re-read the book so I can pay less attention to the suspense of “what happens next” and more to the underlying philosophical themes about life and love and relationships and identity.
Which brings me to my next point – there’s a lot of thoughtful stuff in this book, but above all it is an incredibly engrossing read. Did I mention that I was up at one am reading it? And then I couldn’t fall asleep because I was thinking about it? I cannot overstate how compelling and suspenseful this book is. I thought the flu epidemic section was a real nail-biter and then Ursula grows up and has to survive London during the Blitz, and she just keeps rebooting, in all these variations, and each time you hope that this time she’ll make it…one in the fucking morning, people. I’m both appreciative and a little bitter about this.
The final thing I want to mention is that the vividness of detail and the feeling of historical accuracy is remarkable. Everything is drawn in fine, beautiful, careful language, whether it’s the pattern of the wallpaper in Ursula’s childhood home or the appearance of bodies during the blitz. There is a great love for the mundane, and it grounds the story in a real place, with real, flawed, people.
I’m not sure exactly how to interpret what happens at the end – but it left me feeling hopeful, and proud of Ursula, who comes so far, so many times, and makes a heroic choice that makes terrible sense. This amazing book is funny and harrowing and suspenseful and moving. It made me feel, it made me think, and it let me vicariously experience life in a big city, a mountain retreat, a crowded cottage. I can’t recommend this book enough.