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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (hardcover, $27.99)

Unlike Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brody series, this is not a mystery, unless you want to say something philosophical like "life is a mystery."

What if you got to "do-over" your life if it ended up being boring or you missed an opportunity or you died too young? Or what if you were meant for something more? What if your life began again and again on the same snowy day in February 1910? If one of the times you were born, you didn't even make it past your first minute, what could be done differently?

Ursula Beresford Todd is destined for many iterations of her life. The basic formula for Ursula is this: born on a snowy day in 1910 in a village in England; parents are well-off; three of four siblings are okay, one is a prig; aunt is eccentric. Other appearing and disappearing elements are a housekeeper, maid, farmer, Jewish neighbors, best friend, several boyfriends, some nasty characters, WWII, Nazis, wartime bombing and deprivation. Shake it all up, see what falls out, and write a storyline.

As Ursula gets (maybe) deeper and deeper into her lifetimes, she begins to experience déjà vu. She has no specific knowledge of her prior or parallel lifetimes, but sometimes something passes through. Sometimes she just has a strong feeling that something bad will happen unless she acts.

Kate Atkinson has crafted an extraordinary book. For instance, Atkinson writes the story of Ursula's birth from many perspectives in many different ways, all of them intriguing, each story with a peculiarity of character or sequence of events.

The tangle of what-ifs never snarl; the many storylines just prod the reader to be a careful observer to determine what has changed in the next lifetime. 

Despite the manipulation of time, this is not sci-fi or fantasy. "Life After Life" is illuminating fiction. Atkinson has something to say about all the ways the human heart can soar, be hurt, be healed. Atkinson is a story manipulator, and she is very deft. "The Cloud Atlas" and "The Orphan-Master's Son" also used story manipulation, veering from a straightforward narrative, or even the modern penchant for split stories set in different time periods, and reached a point of sublime art. "Life After Life" floats just beneath. 

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