I've blogged before about the pleasures and pitfalls of “what if” novels. If the premise is too implausible or clunky I lose interest immediately, but if the author makes a persuasive case, like Tom Perrotta's “The Leftovers” or Michael Chabon's “The Yiddish Policemen's Union”, I'm happy to go along for the ride. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life offers a “what if” that is quite a stretch – what if every time main character Ursula Todd dies, some sort of karmic reset button gets hit, and she returns to life. Although she doesn't remember her previous life, a sense of déjà vu causes her to take an alternate path. Confusing? It sounds as if it should be, but once you recognize the rhythm it's surprisingly easy to follow the twisting thread of Ursula's life, from her first cross with death (where she dies at birth) through her childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
This device allows Atkinson to place Ursula in harm's way on both sides in World War II. She sips hot chocolate with Eva Braun, struggles to survive in a bombed out Berlin, but also serves as warden in London during the Blitz. And why didn't this seem like a gimmick? Because I grew more and more fond of Ursula as each new path fleshed out her personality and that of other characters as well. Kate Atkinson's skill kept me following each new narrative with curiosity and affection.