Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-kate-atkinsonThe recent post Books Books Books, included a long list of award-winning historical fiction. Let’s have a look at what readers say about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as an example of successful historical fiction.

With the notion of seeing what ‘ordinary readers’ rather than professional reviewers think, I looked at Goodreads. What leaps out immediately is the divergence of opinion on Atkinson’s novel – a huge number of 4 and 5 star ratings (63%) mixed with many 2 and even 1 star ratings (12%). Let’s have a look at readers’ comments to illustrate this novel’s strengths and shortcomings.

“It’s beautiful literature with sentences so poetic you read them more than once.”

“… wonderfully readable, beautifully written, and immensely thought-provoking.”

“Ms. Atkinson’s ability to capture the essence of life and its many forks in the road, however obvious, makes for an extremely compelling story.”

“Her research was also superb, truly giving you a feeling for the times, especially London during the Blitz and Berlin at the end of the Second World War.”

“I have read many books about England during wartime, whether it be I or II. But never have I read one with more immediacy than this one.”

“Is there a word that simultaneously means achingly lovely & frustratingly confusing?”

“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really understand this book.”

“The author captures Ursula’s moments of life-to-death-to-life enchantingly, yet poignantly, and the cycles nourish the theme of the story.”

“It is exhausting to read about a woman dying over and over again only to be reborn right back where she started…”

“It has an unmistakable old-fashioned Englishness about it – all tea time and ‘goodness gracious’ – which works very well with the time and setting.”

“I’m less mad at Atkinson, who thought she had a good idea, than I am at the idiotic book critics slobbering all over this nonsensical novel.”

Not surprisingly, most comments deal with the novel’s central structural element – the life-and-death-and-life-and-death-and-life (well, you get the idea) of the protagonist. Having read more than one hundred reviews, I can point to three elements of success:

  • superb writing
  • a unique concept that appeals at least partially because it’s a what-if question we all wonder about our own lives
  • compelling sense of time and place

I was surprised that very few reader reviews spoke of the novel as historical fiction.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at some of the other award winning novels as well as top novels listed as favourite historical fiction from the 2015 reader survey.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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17 Responses

  1. Wonderful post! I’ve picked this book up before and haven’t read it through. It’s one of those books that I know I should have read for the unique structure and so forth. Thanks for reminding me it’s there and needs to be read.

  2. I absolutely loved this book though I have a friend who said she must be the only person on the planet who doesn’t like Atkinson’s writing. I want to read it again to get more out of it.

  3. I just loved this book, and one reason for this is that I read it at the cottage and was able to get through it in about two days. All the plot twists stayed straight in my mind, which may not have been the case if I were dipping into the story at a busier time. I was very surprised to meet readers who didn’t like it, and there are many. I must say that I had not thought of it as ‘historical fiction’ although it does concern the past.

      1. For some reason I don’t think of the WWII era as Historical. I would have to say that my definiton of historical fiction is the 30s and earlier. Don’t ask me why, probably because I grew up hearing about “before the war”….ie, WWII was the dividing line between past and present when I was a child. I am 65 now and my Dad was in the RCAF, to give you an idea of where I am coming from.

        1. Thanks, Cathy. It shows that there’s always a personal point of view on the definition. Recently I’ve seen books labelled historical fiction that feature events of the 50s and 60s – definitely doesn’t feel like HF to me! I hope your father told you something of his experiences.

  4. This is a great idea, Mary! I read Life After Life recently – though at first I was slightly confused when I started reading your interesting post because the cover on the book I read was completely different from the one illustrated here… 😉

    I enjoyed this book, though I did find myself flipping back and forth to check what was going on and when. But I think it worked because Atkinson writes so well. I’ve read some books which bewildered/irritated me because the plot left loose ends or the story hadn’t been edited to take out discrepancies. This was different, it was well plotted and beautifully written.

    What is historical fiction? Well, I read this as a historical, but also as a literary work. It just about scrapes into historical for me. Perhaps the cut-off is like Cathy said – if you remember it, or if people you’ve known have talked about living during it, it’s not psychologically far away enough to be ‘history’.

  5. I came to this book, Mary because I was reading a novel that had a lot of mixed up tenses, jumping from present to past within a paragraph. Desperate to understand what was going on I thought I’d have a look at this novel to see how Atkinson manages so many timelines and how she manages her tenses. Nearly finished and loving it.

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