During the harsh winter of 1910, a baby is born, the cord wrapped around her neck. She dies before she has the chance to live. That same baby is born, this time she lives. She will grow to become Ursula Todd, she will be reborn countless times and she will witness some of the most significant events of 20th century Europe.
I’m sure Life After Life needs no introduction. Whilst everyone else is reading A God in Ruins, I thought it was about time I read its predecessor. I was glad that, for the most part, Ursula was unaware of her repeating life. She has feelings of déjà vu and often the sense that something awful is going to happen. This leads her to make different decisions. Sometimes things are fixed, sometimes they are not. She cannot make everything perfect in this imperfect world.
All those unclaimed arms and legs lost in the fields of Flanders – Ursula imagined them pushing roots down into the mud and shoots up to the sky and growing once again into men. An army of men marching back for revenge.
How such small events can make our lives change in dramatic ways. Some have described this book as dealing with time travel or reincarnation, but I like to think of it more exploring alternative realities, or as Terry Pratchett said, the trousers of time. In some of her lives, Ursula veers way off track, her life becoming tragic. In others, she seems happy and it is only the circumstances of her untimely death that brings the tragedy.
“What did science ever do for the world, apart from make better ways of killing people?”
How easy it was to die in the first half of the twentieth century. Life is portrayed as fragile. Sometimes Ursula dies of the same thing repeatedly; some things just seem inevitable. The Spanish Flu was particularly trying and I felt for the family each time they went through it. The Second World War is a large presence in her life, something that cannot be avoided, no matter what course is taken.
In all honestly I felt the book was too long and there were some parts that dragged. I really lost interest in her time in pre-war Germany, perhaps this is because it’s a period I’ve read a fair bit about. I just wanted to get back to Fox Corner or blitzed London. I was eager for Ursula to die, which is an odd feeling to have about a character you actually love.
And why oh why does it have to start with a scene that happens at the end of the book? It detracts a little from Ursula’s personal story, changing her own history. I didn’t want to be constantly thinking about her changing the course of world history, which what it implied. I also found the ending a little unsatisfying.
Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.
Overall I loved her writing and can see why so many people love this book. I was drawn into war torn London, with all its grief but also the comradery. I hadn’t known much about the volunteers who scoured the rubble following bombings. It’s harrowing reading in places but told in such a wonderful way, that it never felt like something I wanted to turn away from.
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Disclosure: Book Source: Purchased