Wednesday, June 5, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

Hardcover, 529 pages
Published April 2, 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, World War II
Rating: 5 stars plus

"What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loveliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more." Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine." ( The Guy Science by Friedrich Nietzsche )

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
What if you could go back in time and live your life over and over again, multiple times, until you get things right? Save yourself from a still birth, prevent the death of a beloved brother, save a neighbor from the homicide fury of a child predator, undo a rushed marriage to a psychopath and reconnect with your childhood sweetheart...what if you could save a loved one from the horrors of a world war and even eliminate the very man who caused it all?
The concept behind this highly imaginative match of historical fiction and kafkaesque surrealism, by British sensation and international best-selling author Kate Atkinson, is that time is not linear but cyclical, and that our universe is an intricate labyrinth of alternate realities and possible worlds. Ursula Todd, protagonist of this bizarre and sophisticated fantasy, is an old soul with a second sight (deja-vu), blessed and cursed with the power to travel along the parallel and intersecting lines of our multidimensional universe, and change the course of tragic events that affect her family and, ultimately, the history of a century.  Driven by her resilient and compassionate nature, she will retrace her steps down the path of her multiple lives in order to fight the blows of a ruthless fate. Ursula's start in life (February 1910) is a pretty daunting one: daughter of a wealthy English family, she is born still during a snow blizzard, but she will cheat death and defy the linear course of time. Death will claim her time and again (drowning, Spanish flu, vicious attack of a violent husband, London Blitz bombings), just to come back, life after life, with unwavering will and unshakable although unaware compulsion to fix the wrongs in the palimpsest of her existence.

"The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, […] time was out of joint, that was for certain. [There was always] an anticipatory dread of something unknown but enormously threatening. […] something just out of sight, just around a corner, something she could never chase down - something that was chasing her down. She was both the hunter and the haunted. Like the fox."

Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence resonates throughout Atkinson's ambitious and sophisticated novel: Dr. Kellet's words (the psychiatric who will treat Ursula for what her family believes to be a neurological problem) echoes the German philosopher's claim that the universe keeps recurring in a self-similar form and infinite number of times, a concept found in Eastern philosophies, declined by Christianity in western cultures, but resurrected by European thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer during the nineteenth century. In its imaginative distortion  Life After Life is also reminiscent of Franz Kafka's themes of emotional suffocation, alienation, and surrealism, but whereas the Czech writer's imaginative  world is steeped in doom and darkened by his pessimism on the ineluctability of the human condition, Atkinson's heroine is offered the chance to escape her predicaments and open doors on new possible worlds.
Elaborate and intellectually gratifying,  Life After Life stretched the boundaries of my imagination with ingenious grace and mind-bending originality.

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