You've heard the phrase Life After Death before, often referring to some sort of afterlife, but Life After Life isn't about an afterlife—it's about a now life, a life that happens over and over again. The title, then, clues us into the central device in this book: rebirth. Fittingly, Ursula, our main character, doesn't even believe in an afterlife. She's kind of right and wrong—while she never experiences an afterlife, she does experience a life after life, which, depending on your beliefs, just might be the same thing. Either way, though, in this book life just keeps going, no matter how many times Ursula's rebooted.
Life After Life can be seen as a book with dozens of endings, in the form of each of Ursula's deaths, but it can also be seen as a book with absolutely zero endings. After all, every single time she dies, she's reborn again and starts her journey anew.
But for the purpose of this section, we'll talk about the book's final four chapters. Chapter 26 is aptly named "The End of the Beginning," and this chapter covers an entire life of Ursula's, one in which the déjà vu she experiences from having lived the same life so many times catches up to her.
Ursula kind of goes crazy and has to be institutionalized for a bit, and in this lifetime, she develops a sort of god complex, taking it upon herself to bend and twist the world as she sees fit. She sees herself as "both warrior and shining spear" (26.227)—and when she decides she's done her duty, she jumps out a window and kills herself. "This is love" (26.230), she says as she plummets to her death. What does she mean by that? That love means sacrificing yourself for the good of others?
Chapter 27 is a retelling of the first chapter, which only adds to the book's cyclical depiction of eternal recurrence. We get another slightly different scene of Ursula's birth in Chapters 28 and 30.
Chapter 29 is an odd one. In this one, Teddy's plane is shot down (as it was back in Chapter 25), but this time he lives. Now, there isn't anything Ursula could have done to change that, right? When they reunite at the pub, Ursula is afraid to move because she fears the illusion will be broken—but then she realizes that he is real. And maybe then she realizes that not everything is always in her control; she can't change the world by herself.
Eventually, Life After Life has to stop, so Atkinson ends it here. It's a fitting ending, because Teddy always was Ursula's favorite, like the child she never had (except in that one chapter where she has a child). She'd do anything in her power to protect him, but in the end she realizes that life sometimes has its own plans.
During her many lives, Ursula Todd lives in the English countryside, London, Germany, and in one brief instance, with Hitler as Europe goes through World Wars I and II . So many WWII novels are set around the Holocaust or in brutal battles in Normandy, but this novel gives us a lesser-seen perspective: one of a person living in London during the Blitz or, thanks to the gift of reincarnation, the same person living in Germany as Hitler rises to power.
Most of the book, though, takes place at Ursula's family home, Fox Corner. We see it from the moment Sylvie and Hugh move to the house and name it, saying "A little whimsy never hurt anyone" (4.42). It's a little tense at first because Hugh thinks "It sounds like a children's story" (4.41) and asks, "Can a house be a corner? Isn't it at one?"—which, you know, he has a point about. But anyway. The house is improbable and a little whimsical, just like Ursula's many lives often are, making it the perfect place for her to be born… and reborn… and reborn again.
"What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now 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.'"
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science.
"Everything changes and nothing remains still."
"What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
—Edward Beresford Todd
Life After Life revolves around rebirth, and the epigraphs set up some of the central ideas really nicely for us. The first quote—the one from Nietzsche—introduces the idea of rebirth. It's presented as a demonic revelation, though, something perhaps dark and, importantly, powerful.
Speaking of powerful, the second quote is a shout-out to Ursula's ability to tweak her life as she lives it time and again. While there are lots of constants between her lives—same family, same upbringing, stuff like that—none of Ursula's lives are exactly the same. As Plato says, "everything changes." And as for the "nothing remains still" part, Ursula's life most definitely doesn't, cycling back through itself on repeat.
The last quote is fudging it a bit. Edward Beresford Todd may sound like the name of a Romantic poet you studied last year, but he's actually a character in this book. Teddy's quote is something most of us have probably wondered at one point. "I wish I could do that again…" But even if life gave us mulligans, what would it mean to do things right? Is there a "right" or "wrong" way to live? As Ursula learns during her many do-overs, getting one thing right often causes something else to go wrong.
Reading Life After Life is easier than walking into a German café and shooting Hitler in the 1930s. Okay, Ursula makes that look really easy, so maybe that's not the best comparison. Unlike books actually written in the 1940s—like those by Camus, Hemingway, and Steinbeck—the text of Life After Life isn't as dense. But that doesn't mean it isn't full of historical allusions (like some Nazi name-dropping you might have to look up), philosophical thoughts about death and rebirth, and some brutal sequences of dying during times of war. Still, though, this is a Life worth living, or reading, as the case may be.
Atkinson could have called this book A Glitch in the Matrix, but we're glad she didn't. Keanu Reeves wouldn't have made a good Ursula.
As Ursula lives and relives her many lives, she sometimes has weird feelings of past lives. While she doesn't remember exactly what happened, she gets a strange feeling in a situation where she's died before, and she's able to make changes to alter her course. Cool trick, right?
Bridget thinks that Ursula has "the second sight" (17.4) because of her way of anticipating the future. But the more Ursula lives and relives, the more familiar everything becomes, and she feels strange more often. Sylvie, who has no tolerance for strange thoughts (she loves to deny her way into happiness), tells Ursula "It's a trick of the mind" (17.1) and to "think sunny thoughts" (17.1). Ursula tries to describe her memories as "a cascade of echoes. Could echoes cascade?" (20.44), showing us that even she doesn't really understand how it works.
Eventually it gets to be too much, and Sylvie takes Ursula to see Dr. Kellet, who explicitly talks about reincarnation, déjà vu, fate, and "amor fati" (22.107) (which is basically fancy for accepting fate). This conversation ends up serving a dual purpose. On one hand, it gets Ursula obsessed with her fate and trying to control it, but eventually she realizes that while she can acknowledge her fate, she also has to channel her inner Disney princess and just let it go. Despite knowing what's going to happen, she can't always do something about it.
Déjà vu, then, doesn't just represent Ursula's repetitions of life, since how she relates to that feeling tracks how she relates to this experience of living over and over again. In other words, it's definitely more than a feeling.
Ursula's birth is often depicted as a cold and dangerous affair. The first time we see it, it's described from her point of view as "An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin" (2.1). And every time she dies, she starts to feel the snow as she's fading into darkness. It's a little scary, the thought of death as just cold blackness. But then again, being born is cold, too. The cold, then, perhaps represents the shock of being born and dying.
The silver hare is a little more comforting than the snow, however. It hangs from Ursula's carriage, with "the sun glinting off its silver skin" (4.71). The silver hare also looks after Teddy, Sylvie's other "little bear" (6.26), referencing the connection he and Ursula share.
As a child, the silver hare provides Ursula with comfort. Perhaps because of this, sometimes she even sees it as she's dying, too. The silver hare is "the prettiest thing she had ever seen" (21.250), so when she sees it as she dies, it may be a little reminder to her that she's going to be reborn and that everything is going to be okay. It certainly reminds readers of this. So as much as death and birth are associated with cold, the hare infuses both ends of life with comfort and calm, too. Go team.
There is so much animal imagery in this book that sometimes it's hard not to picture the characters as walking, talking animals, in the vein of Winnie the Pooh. Heck, the Todd family even lives at Fox Corner, which sounds an awful lot like Pooh Corner.
Both Ursula and Teddy are named after types of bears. Ursula means "little she-bear" (4.49) and Teddy (Edward) is named after a strangely cuddly U.S president. We're not sure what being a bear has to do with their personalities, but Ursula and Teddy are very fond of each other and their names are a shout-out to their strong connection.
The family's last name, Todd, means fox (so Ursula is kind of named Bear Fox). Foxes are seen as both good and bad. In one timeline, actual foxes eat the girls' pet rabbits, but in another, Maurice is vilified for shooting a fox on the property.
So why is the family named Fox, from a literary perspective? Well, it could be that foxes are seen as cunning and wily, and those two terms fit Ursula to a T. At one point, Ursula describes herself as "a fox without a hole" (26.194) when she completely loses her way in life. But in later lives, she's able to think her way out of that situation.
It's not all just humans with animal names. Life After Life is also populated with dogs given human names, like Trixie. Like family pets do, these dogs die. And although they're a part of the family, and their deaths are sad, they're always replaced by another dog, each one slightly different from the last.
This is a lot like Ursula's many lives. Sure, she dies and it's sad, but she's replaced by another Ursula, each one a slightly different copy. She shares other traits with the dogs, too, like Bosun, a French mastiff, "the kind [of dog] that pulled people from burning buildings and rescued them from drowning" (6.21). Ursula saves people from burning buildings in one life, and she herself is rescued from drowning.
When the family gets kittens, Pamela acts with "uncharacteristic melodrama" (26.59). This is the only timeline where she isn't the stable sister, the voice of reason. Insofar as the dogs represent Ursula, then perhaps the cats are a symbol for how essential Ursula is to the Todd family—when her symbol is out of the picture, things simply aren't right. Either that, or Atkinson is just more of a dog person than a cat person.
Bad things happen on staircases in this book. We're told that "Staircases were very dangerous places, according to Sylvie. People died on them" (17.15). Yikes. And she's not kidding, either. Check it:
Okay, so stairs equal death. But now let's dig a little deeper. Do you remember what else happens on the stairs? Ursula is raped by Howie. And while this assault sets into motion a chain of events that leads to Ursula's brutal death, because it happens on the stairs we understand that she died—if not physically, then psychically—the moment she is raped. Driving this point home is the way Sylvie treats Ursula after the rape, which sends a strong message to her daughter that she is no longer worthy or valuable.
If we found ourselves in the world of Life After Life, we'd take the elevator. Every. Single. Time.
Life After Life follows Ursula's many lives. When she dies, the narrative ends with her, and it begins again with her birth. However, she's not the narrator. The narrator is someone outside the story who can dip into almost anyone's inner thoughts, at any time they choose. For instance, we see how Sylvie feels toward Izzie (she hates her) and how Pamela feels about Maurice (exasperated by his immaturity). Just like we get to see World War II from a variety of vantage points, so it goes with the plot, thanks to this narration style.