The io9 Book Club Is in Session! Let's Talk About Life After Life

Illustration for article titled The io9 Book Club Is in Session! Lets Talk About emLife After Life/em

Welcome to the monthly meeting of the io9 Book Club. In April, we read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Jump into comments to get started talking about it!

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(Note: I was out last week, so the book club got delayed until today. My apologies!)

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For those unfamiliar with the io9 book club, here's how it works: You read the book. We create a special book club post on io9 when the meeting is in session. That would be the post you're reading. Then everybody talks about the book in comments for a few days, starting right now.

We hope that Kate Atkinson will join us sometime in the next week to talk about the book. So, what did you think of Life After Life?

Want to get started on our next book?

To celebrate the impending release of the latest novel in James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, we'll be reading the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes. Not only did we love this novel when it came out a few years ago, but now Syfy Channel has just ordered up a series based on it.

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We will meet to discuss it on June 9.

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DISCUSSION

charliejane
Charlie Jane Anders

I didn't get around to writing a review of this book, so I'm just going to write about my thoughts on it here.

Life After Life takes a concept that could be used for an adventure novel — almost the same concept as The Fifteenth Life of Harry August, in fact — and instead turns it into a novel about society. This book is much more like Trollope or Gaskell, one of those big Victorian novels about the world and all the different ways people can behave, than it is about someone who has a superpower.

The main choice that Atkinson makes is to depict Ursula Todd's power as very slight, and almost subliminal — she doesn't "remember" her past iterations of the same lifetime, so much as experience echoes and brief hints. Because of that, she avoids running into the same traps again and again, but she doesn't have godlike knowledge of the future, the way Harry August does.

And she can't really change history, at all — the one time she tries, killing Hitler, it's a bust. She kills Hitler but is immediately killed and reborn again, having to start all over. She doesn't get to live in a world where Hitler died in 1930, and that world apparently ceases to exist when she dies.

To the extent that this book is about history, it's about being trapped in history and unable to make any real dent in the flow — you can change things for yourself and the people close to you, and maybe that has a ripple effect. But you can't change the grand scheme of things.

I was fascinated by how much Ursula getting raped is the heart of the book — the version of her life where she's raped by a visiting American is the single longest section, and it's dead in the middle. Her life after being raped is unspeakably bitter and miserable, and every iteration of her life after that is about trying to find a version of existence that's better. She tries being childless and stoic, she tries marrying the most foreign man she can find, she tries having lots of affairs. Nothing ever quite works. She never finds the perfect happy version of her life, or the relationship that will make her happy. It's as if her rape trauma follows her through all her lifetimes.

If you see this as a book about superpowers, you're going to be disappointed — but as a thought experiment about getting to live the same life many different ways, and as a composite picture of mid-20th century society, in which we meet the same characters over and over with variations, it's fascinating. And Maurice, the older brother, is just unspeakably awful.