There's one tag on this site that I reserve for the best of the best, those books that are so creative, so memorable, so fascinating that I find myself pondering them as I'm trying to fall asleep at night. Don't you have books that were so joyous to read that if someone asked you about them, they'd have to tell you to calm down a few moments into your response? I can't be the only one who gets rowdy over a great book.
The tag I use to denote such transcendent works of literature is the eloquently phrased “Don't Cheapen This You Ignorant Slut.” I've only used it one other time, for Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (For an explanation of the tag name, see that post here.) Now, I make a point to read widely—I'll give just about any book a fair shake, and I can find a redeeming quality or two in almost every one. However, I save this venerable category for the truly unique, the snowy white swan paddling in the midst of the flock of crude, honking geese. And now that I've written myself into a corner with that metaphor, I have no choice but to assert that Kate Atkinson has crafted a real swan in Life After Life.
The premise and structure of the book are unlike anything I've encountered before. Ursula Todd is born on a snowy February night in 1910. She lives her life, things happen, she dies, and then she is born again on the same snowy night in the same year as the same person. In her next life events take different turns, but the ending is the same—once she meets her demise, she immediately begins again, right back where she started. Eventually, Ursula has lived enough iterations of her own life that she experiences near-constant deja vu, which allows her to make seemingly random choices that avert disaster or bring about positive change.
When I first read the book description, I wondered how an author could execute such a novel without the necessary repetition becoming tedious. I didn't need to worry—Atkinson is way too skilled to let anything like drudgery creep in, and she weaves in the repeated sections so subtly that they feel like echoes of deja vu, as if we are experiencing Ursula's many lives along with her.
As you might guess, some of Ursula's lives go better than others, and some are particularly darkened by tragedy. However, the premise itself saves those sections from being too horrible to bear, because we know Ursula will get another chance to set things right in her next life—and when she does, the results are immensely satisfying.
One thing I also feel compelled to admit: this book exposed some holes in my education. Despite having been through many Holocaust units in history and English classes, and despite having taught them myself, I found I knew next to nothing about World War II beyond the ghettos, forced deportation, and concentration camps. When Ursula meets a girl photographer in Germany in the 1930s named Eva, it took many pages and a trip to Wikipedia before I figured out who she was and that she was kind of important. Embarrassing for me, yes, but I offer my inadequate historical knowledge up for public view in case you need a similar primer on the Third Reich and its major players.
Utterly unrelated note: Check back this weekend for details on our first special feature: the Middlemarch in March Challenge! Because if humans can walk on the moon, climb Everest, and run marathons, we can read a thousand-page British masterpiece without wussing out. Hope you'll join me!