I hesitated to take on this book after reading some reviews, thinking it would be out of my comfort zone. Fortunately I read Tony''s review and knew I would love it. And I did.
The unusual nature of the narrative is the "Groundhog Day" aspect of the storytelling. The novel begins with a birth in 1910 in rural England that goes wrong as there is a snowstorm and the doctor doesn't arrive in time and "darkness falls." We begin again and this time the doctor arrives "in the nick of time" and Ursula survives. Throughout the book Ursula has a number of life altering events, some of which end in her death, some set her on a terrible path.
Ultimately we are hearing the stories of British life from that time through World War II through the lives of Ursula's family: her parents Hugh and Silvie, the forever unpleasant older brother Maurice, down-to-earth Pamela, the younger loveable Teddy, and finally, Jimmy. When Hugh and Silvie move into a house in the country as newlyweds, they are looking for a name:
“Green Acres? Fairview? Sunnymeade?” Hugh offered, putting his arm around his bride.
The previous owner of their unnamed house had sold up and gone to live in Italy.
“Imagine,” Silvie said dreamily.
She had been to Italy when she was younger, a Grand Tour with her father while her mother went to Eastbourne for her lungs.
“Full of Italians,” Hugh said dismissively.
“Quite. That’s rather the attraction,” Silvie said.
If you find this a charming interaction as I did, you will love this book. And it is enhanced by the British reader with a nice plummy accent.
Not surprisingly, a significant amount of the story focuses on World War II; Ursula lives through it in different ways. Generally she works compiling reports in a government office about war losses and in the evenings she is an air raid warden. Once she is killed in an air raid along with a woman and her baby, a family named Miller, and two elderly sisters. In another version of her life, she is the warden who comes upon this bombed building and is very affected by these very deaths.
The narrative doubles back over events in her life so she is either in a different role or something intervenes to change the outcome. I found this an appealing approach; we can see how a character's life changes depending on individual events outside their control.
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life, Reagan Arthur Books, 2013, 544 pages (I listened to the audiobook).