I picked up Life After Life by Kate Atkinson despite some trepidation about the Groundhog Day premise but was ultimately impressed. When I started seeing A God in Ruins (2015) on bookshelves, I was eager to read another book by Atkinson. However, I was yet again put off by the premise. I was surprised that Atkinson chose to write about the Todd family, the same family that she’d focused on in her previous book. Specifically, she focuses on Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother and a pilot in the Royal Air Force during WWII. I was curious how Atkinson would have enough to write about since we’d already learned about Teddy in her previous book. I was also wondering how it would work narratively, considering the numerous versions of Ursula’s life. What version of Ursula’s life was Teddy going to live?
Once again Atkinson surprised me. She did not shackle herself to any specific reality from her previous book, and I learned that there is so much I didn’t know about Teddy’s life. Perhaps most striking were how the characters and relationships in his life were so different from his perspective.
Atkinson uses the character of Teddy to explore the life of a bomber pilot in WWII. It is a life of death and destruction with “[o]nly one in six aircrew ma[king] it through their first tour.” (221) Atkinson brings the nail-biting tension and risk of a bombing run right to the reader with great historical detail.
“It was then that Teddy realized that they were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.” (228)
But the death and destruction of the war is only part of the book. Teddy is a sensitive character, a lover of animals and non-violent by nature. However, his job is to rain havoc and destruction on civilians. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that Atkinson touches on without judgment. Teddy’s wife, children, and grandchildren are also all central parts of the book–fascinating characters in and of themselves.
I was very impressed by Atkinson’s ability to jump between time, characters, and location and keep everything straight and understandable. She moves between perspectives and time periods from pre-WWII to 2012–along with unexpected spoilers into the future. Somehow it all works. One theme that stuck with me was how my perspective of characters changed once I learned more about them. Not only did I have more sympathy for them when I saw where they came from, but it was also remarkable how small incidents formed the rest of their lives. If Atkinson had written the book with a straight timeline, these insights could not have occurred. She has a talent for writing deep, believable characters.
This book was a fascinating glimpse into some of the history of WWII; it is well-written and interesting to read. I would definitely recommend it. It is not necessary–or even useful–to read Life After Life first. If anything, it might be more confusing if you have. I spent some time trying to figure out how the two books fit together before I realized it didn’t matter.
It was not until the end of the book that we discover that Teddy did not actually survive the war, get married, and have a daughter. He died trying to save his crew, crashing in his plane after a number of tours. Atkinson throws this at us at the end of the book and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, mere statistics of those who died in a war quickly lose their meaning. In this way, Atkinson shows us how much impact Teddy’s life really would have had and we feel more of a loss when we realize he is gone. On the other hand, I felt like I was tricked. Really? You’re going to throw that at me right at the end of the book with no warning? What kind of rules does this book follow? It didn’t irritate me enough to avoid Atkinson in the future, but I did feel a little betrayed.
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