Life After Life, review: a Groundhog Day period drama that makes you care about its characters
Kate Atkinson's 2013 bestseller has been gorgeously adapted for TV with almost everything intact
4 / 5 stars
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
19 April 2022 • 10:00pm
It’s BBC period drama time. Adopt the brace position. What crimes against historical accuracy are we about to witness? Which 21st-century preoccupations will be shoehorned into the script? Will Olivia Colman be in it?
With great relief, I can tell you that none of the above applies to Life After Life. It is a gorgeously-realised and entirely faithful adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 bestseller. The fact that it is a modern book, with a female author and protagonist, means that nobody has felt the need to tinker with the story. It has been transferred from page to screen with almost everything intact, including lines from the novel narrated here by Lesley Manville.
Voiceovers can often be an ominous sign in television, signalling a director who lacks confidence in their own power of storytelling. But here it works fine. If you are a fan of the book - and millions are - this drama should be pleasing.
The story is a fantastical one. Ursula Todd is stillborn on February 11, 1910, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and only a young housemaid by the mother’s bedside. But then we cut to the same scene, and Ursula lives - this time a doctor is present.
A few years later, she drowns while playing at the seaside. Then we spool back, live those few years again, and this time an artist painting seascapes spots the little girl in distress and rescues her from the waves. And so it goes on, with Ursula dying many times but being born again.
Somehow, she begins to intuit that death is around the corner and takes decisions that affect her life chances. “The world was a dangerous place but she was not powerless - quite the opposite,” the narrator informs us, although it does take Ursula several attempts to survive the Spanish ‘flu.
Essentially, this is a literary version of Groundhog Day. It spans two world wars, and will eventually bring Ursula face to face with Hitler in a moment that could change the course of history. There is a danger of the story - structurally, it can never be more than a collection of vignettes - appearing lightweight or gimmicky. But the quality cast prevents this from happening.
In future episodes, Thomasin McKenzie will take over from the child actors Eliza Riley and Isla Johnston as Ursula. In episode one, the most striking role is that of Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, played by Sian Clifford.
So often in period dramas, mothers are gentle figures - Lady Bridgerton in Netflix’s blockbuster series is just the latest example, channelling Little Women’s Marmee. But Clifford brings a welcome spikiness - the producers surely had her performance as Fleabag’s sister in mind when they cast her. Sylvie is short-tempered, undemonstrative, and unable to treat her daughter with uncomplicated affection. “You’re too old for that,” she tells Ursula, when the girl tries to curl up on her lap.
The purest love, in this first episode at least, is between Ursula and her younger brother, Teddy. It’s curious how affecting these scenes can be when you know that any tragedy that befalls them is likely to be erased in the next lifetime.
James McArdle plays Sylvie’s husband, Hugh. His frequent absences are better explained in the book than they are here, and in the course of this first episode we were told precious little about him. Yet when he hugged his children before going off to war, I had a lump in my throat. It is a drama that makes you care about the lives of its characters, however many times you meet them.
Life After Life review – a thoroughly addictive weepathon
This adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s novel about a woman who keeps on dying and being reborn is so full of grief it can feel overwhelming – but the anguish is irresistible
The show’s main priority is apparent from the start: to make you cry … Life After Life.
Tue 19 Apr 2022 22.00 BST
Ursula Todd can’t stop dying. That’s the premise of this devastating drama, a four-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel, which documents its protagonist’s many demises – each as distressing as the last. Born to a wealthy middle-class family in 1910, Ursula dies almost instantly, strangled by her umbilical cord. But, then again, she survives – a fact relayed to us by Lesley Manville’s equanimous narrator. It’s a pattern that repeats throughout Ursula’s many comfortable childhoods: there’s a drowning incident, a fall out of a bedroom window, multiple battles with Spanish flu. And then, suddenly, she is back, being born, and doing it all over again – but this time with self-protective instincts she can’t quite account for. It’s The Butterfly Effect meets Groundhog Day (or rather “Groundhog Life”), only with none of the latter’s droll cosiness.
There’s not a huge amount to laugh about in Life After Life (BBC Two). The show’s main priority is apparent from the start: making people cry. If you like the feeling of being overwhelmed by vicarious trauma and grief then you’re in for a treat. And the anguish is thoroughly addictive. It’s what makes Life After Life incredibly compelling, binge-worthy even, despite being practically plotless from one episode to the next.
The tragedy of Ursula’s life is amorphous and inevitable and not particularly personal; it has no through-line besides the fact that the story is set during a uniquely dangerous time in British history. That’s no accident: it’s what makes her incessant dying entirely plausible. Although the first world war doesn’t directly affect her bucolic childhood, it still kills her (her father volunteers to fight, which then leads to the window fall). The 1918 influenza pandemic is harrowing – unbelievably so, from the Todds’ perspective, especially given the timing. “Hasn’t there been enough suffering?” is the dismissive response of Ursula’s steely, capable mother, unconvinced that there is a threat until it’s far too late.
Yet it’s when the action moves into the second world war that the universe darkens more profoundly. Until this point, Ursula’s lives have got longer and generally better. Now that progress stalls: she cannot avoid news of her beloved little brother Teddy’s death, however many times her life reboots. Her wartime experiences vary wildly – from a glittering civil service career to family life in Germany that descends into hellish starvation – but they are all deeply disturbing, the latter almost nauseatingly so.
In one sense, Life After Life has found a dramatic cheat code. Killing off a protagonist – especially such a sweet, thoughtful, young one – is a shortcut to brutal emotional impact. Surely a drama almost entirely made up of that moment, or the promise of it happening imminently, is an easy way to get viewers on tenterhooks? And yet it soon begins to feel miraculous that we are never inured to the awfulness of Ursula’s deaths. You can’t mourn her when you know you’ll be seeing her in the next scene, and yet you still do.
That’s not so much because of a particular affection for Ursula (Thomasin McKenzie) herself. She’s not a hugely distinctive personality, something necessary to accommodate all the twists her life takes. It’s not even really because of the convincing nature of the show’s world, though it does a brilliant job of making period archetypes – the grumpy servant, imperious mother, gadabout maiden aunt – seem three-dimensional (thanks mainly to the stellar cast: Jessica Hynes, Fleabag’s Sian Clifford and Jessica Brown Findlay, respectively). What makes Life After Life so upsetting is that it feels real in a broader way. Whether these deaths have actually befallen the fictional Ursula is beside the point. Their historical grounding means we know they happened to somebody, somewhere, at some time.
Keep watching Life After Life to make sense of its central mystery – or, indeed, its central protagonist – and you will be disappointed. Ursula never gets close to unravelling a purpose behind her predicament. “I don’t know why we live – all we do is die,” she mourns on a blitz deathbed of rubble and dust towards the end of the series, still completely mystified by the meaning of her multiple lives.
Usually, such drama pulls strings in order to wrap things up with a cheap, life-affirming glow, but Ursula gets only glimmers of comfort from others. Her journalist aunt Izzie – a 1920s Carrie Bradshaw – advocates viewing life as an adventure. Her avuncular psychiatrist quotes Nietzsche on amor fati – embracing your own fate. Her father, meanwhile, offers more banal words about human kindness.
Really, it is less about the content of their advice than the love implicit in it, which is a powerful consolation for death. That love radiates from Ursula after the conversation with her father as she boards the train back to wartime London with a heartbreaking spring in her step, ready to die all over again.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – review
Themes of fate, family life and renewal are brilliantly explored in this story of a life lived in wartime Britain
Wed 6 Mar 2013 10.54 GMT
Kate Atkinson's new novel is a marvel, a great big confidence trick – but one that invites the reader to take part in the deception. In fact, it is impossible to ignore it. Every time you attempt to lose yourself in the story of Ursula Todd, a child born in affluent and comparatively happy circumstances on 11 February 1910, it simply stops. If this sounds like the quick route to a short book, don't worry: the narrative starts again – and again and again – but each time it takes a different course, its details sometimes radically, sometimes marginally altered, its outcome utterly unpredictable. Atkinson's general rule is that things seem to get better with repetition, but this, her self-undermining novel seems to warn us, is a comfort that is by no means guaranteed, either.
She begins as she means to go on, and at the very beginning. (In fact, even this is not quite true: a brief prologue shows us Ursula in a Munich coffee shop in 1930, assassinating Hitler with her father's old service revolver.) At the start of the novel "proper", Sylvie Todd is giving birth to her third child, her situation given a fairytale atmosphere by the encroaching snow which also, alas, cuts her off from outside help in the form of Dr Fellowes or Mrs Haddock, the midwife. Ursula is stillborn, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, her life unsaved for want of a pair of surgical scissors. Fortunately, though, she is allowed another go at the business of coming into being; in take two, Dr Fellowes makes it, cuts the cord and proceeds to his reward of a cold collation and some homemade piccalilli (it might be too fanciful to notice that even the piccalilli repeats).
Ursula's childhood is to be punctuated with such near-misses: the treacherous undertow of the Cornish sea, icy tiles during a rooftop escapade, the wildfire spread of Spanish flu. Each disaster is confirmed by variations on the phrase "darkness fell", and each new beginning heralded by the tabula rasa that snow brings. Ursula carries within her a vague, dimly apprehended sense of other, semi-lived lives, inexpressible except as impetuous actions – such as when she pushes a housemaid down the stairs to save her from a more terrible ending. That misdemeanour lands her in the office of a psychiatrist who introduces her, in kindly fashion, to the concept of reincarnation and to the roughly opposing theory of amor fati, particularly as espoused by Nietzsche: the acceptance, or even embrace, of one's fate, and the rejection of the idea that anything could, or should, have unfolded differently.
Amor fati is tough to take, of course, if you are a drowning child, or a battered wife, or a shell-shocked young man, or a terrified mother calling for your baby in the rubble of the blitz, all of whom and more besides make up the lives captured, however fleetingly, in Life After Life. It's equally tough if you are a novelist, and put in the powerful but invidious position of controlling what befalls your characters. Are their futures really written in their past? Can you tell what's going to happen to them simply from the way you started them off? Even sustaining your creative engagement could prove tricky: perhaps that's why one catastrophe is tagged with the exhausted words "Darkness, and so on" and why yet another recitation of Ursula's birth is reduced to a mere five lines.
The reader is similarly implicated in this continual manipulation of narrative tension and the suspension of disbelief. We want a story, but what kind of story do we want: something truthful or something soothing, something that ties up loose ends or something that casts us on to a tide of uncertainty, not only about what might happen, but about what already has? In Atkinson's model, we can have all of the above, but where does that leave us, with multiple tall tales clamouring for our attention?
Sometimes, it appears we are being offered a straight choice between happy and unhappy endings. On the one hand, there is Fox Corner, the Todd family home in what is still, although perhaps not for long, a wonderfully bucolic England. There are gin slings and tennis on the lawn and bees buzzing their "summer afternoon lullaby"; there is the reliable accumulation of children – Ursula is the third of five – and servants that are either touchingly steadfast or humorously difficult; there are beloved family dogs and treasured dolls and troublesome aunts whose bad behaviour can just about be absorbed.
Outside in the lane, however, lurks an evil-minded stranger, his story the more powerful for never being brought into the light; and sometimes intruders arrive under the cloak of friendship. When Ursula is molested, and then raped, by a pal of one of her brothers, her exile from Fox Corner begins; her subsequent pregnancy and illegal abortion give way to a lonely London life, solitary drinking and then, most awfully, to a violent husband who shuts her up in a mean little house in Wealdstone, far from her family.
Ursula's marriage to the vile Derek Oliphant – himself a constructor of false personal history – would never have happened if she had managed to evade her teenage abuser. In the next iteration, she does; and she is liberated once more, to plunge on to lives made perhaps even more divergent by the schism of the second world war. And the reader is perplexed once more: what to make of a character so chameleon-like that we can watch her excavating bomb sites on one page, stranded in a dystopian, war-torn Berlin on another and (in what admittedly requires the biggest leap of faith) being entertained by the Führer at Berchtesgaden on yet another?
This description of Atkinson's looping, metamorphosing narrative inevitably makes it sound tricksy, almost whimsical. Structurally, it is, but its ceaseless renewals are populated with pleasures that extend beyond the what-next variety. She captures well, for example, the traumatic shifts in British society – and does so precisely because she cuts directly from one war to the next, only later going back to fill in, partially, what happened in between. She demonstrates an extraordinary gift for capturing peril: the sections in which influenza tears through Fox Corner are truly menacing, and the descriptions of Ursula's work in a bombed-out London are masterpieces of the macabre ("'Be careful here, Mr Emslie,' she said over her shoulder, 'there's a baby, try to avoid it.'").
The texture of daily life is beautifully conveyed, particularly in its domestic details, which often verge on the queasily visceral. An ineptly poached egg is "a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die"; shortly after Sylvie's confinement, Mrs Glover, the crosspatch cook, "took a bowl of kidneys soaking in milk from the pantry and commenced removing the fatty white membrane, like a caul". On another occasion, she thumps slices of veal with a tenderiser, imagining "they're the heads of the Boche". But alongside these minutiae is set the author's fascination with the intricacies of large families, and in particular with sibling relationships.
The so-called family saga is, of course, where Atkinson's career as a novelist began, with the Whitbread-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum, itself a story that refused to proceed in linear fashion, invoking the spirit of Tristram Shandy in its digressive portrayal of the life of Ruby Lennox. Neither book, of course, can really be contained by such a constricting label, just as Atkinson's four Jackson Brodie novels refuse to fit neatly into the genre marked crime. Behind the Scenes and Life After Life both co-opt the family – its evolution over time, its exponentially multiplying characters and storylines, its silences and gaps in communication – and use it to show how fiction works and what it might mean to us. But what makes Atkinson an exceptional writer – and this is her most ambitious and most gripping work to date – is that she does so with an emotional delicacy and understanding that transcend experiment or playfulness. Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us. How do you square that circle? You'd have to ask Kate Atkinson, but I doubt she would give you a straight answer.
Life After Life is a 2013 novel by Kate Atkinson. It is the first of two novels about the Todd family. The second, A God in Ruins, was published in 2015. Life After Life garnered acclaim from critics.
The novel has an unusual structure, repeatedly looping back in time to describe alternative possible lives for its central character, Ursula Todd, who is born on 11 February 1910 to an upper-middle-class family near Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. In the first version, she is strangled by her umbilical cord and stillborn. In later iterations of her life she dies as a child - drowning in the sea, or when saved from that, by falling to her death from the roof when trying to retrieve a fallen doll. Then there are several sequences when she falls victim to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 - which repeats itself again and again, though she already has a foreknowledge of it, and only her fourth attempt to avert catching the flu succeeds.
Then there is an unhappy life where she is traumatised by being raped, getting pregnant and undergoing an illegal abortion, and finally becoming trapped in a highly oppressive marriage, and being killed by her abusive husband when trying to escape. In later lives she averts all this by being pre-emptively aggressive to the would-be rapist. In between, she also uses her half-memory of earlier lives to avert the young neighbour Nancy being raped and murdered by a child molester. The saved Nancy would play an important role in Ursula's later life(s), forming a deep love relationship with Ursula's brother Teddy, and would become a main character in the sequel, A God in Ruins.
Still later iterations of Ursula's life take her into World War II, where she works in London for the War Office and repeatedly witnesses the results of the Blitz, including a direct hit on a bomb shelter in Argyll Road in November 1940 - with herself being among the victims in some lives and among the rescuers in others. There is also a life in which she marries a German in 1934, is unable to return to England and experiences the war in Berlin under the allied bombings.
Ursula eventually comes to realise, through a particularly strong sense of deja vu, that she has lived before, and decides to try to prevent the war by killing Adolf Hitler in late 1930. Memory of her earlier lives also provides the means of doing that: the knowledge that by befriending Eva Braun - in 1930 an obscure shop girl in Munich - Ursula would be able to get close to Hitler with a loaded gun in her bag; the inevitable price, however, is to be herself shot dead by Hitler's Nazi followers immediately after killing him.
What is left unclear - since each of the time sequences end with "darkness" and Ursula's death and does not show what followed - is whether in fact all these lives actually occurred in an objective world, or were only subjectively experienced by her. Specifically it is not clear whether or not her killing Hitler in 1930 actually produced an altered timeline where the Nazis did not take power in Germany, or possibly took power under a different leader with a different course of the Second World War. Although in her 1967 incarnation Ursula speculates with her nephew on this "might have been", the book avoids giving a clear answer.
Alex Clark of The Guardian gave Life After Life a positive review, saying that domestic details of daily life are conveyed beautifully, and that traumatic shifts in British society are also captured well "precisely because she cuts directly from one war to the next, only later going back to fill in, partially, what happened in between." Clark argued that the novel "[co-opts] the family [...] and [uses] it to show how fiction works and what it might mean to us [...] with an emotional delicacy and understanding that transcend experiment or playfulness. Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us." The Daily Telegraph's Helen Brown likewise praised it, calling it Atkinson's best book to date. The Independent found the central character to be sympathetic, and argued that the book's central message was that World War II was preventable and should not have been allowed to happen.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times Book Review praised Life After Life as Atkinson's "very best" book and "full of mind games, but they are purposeful rather than emptily playful. [...] this one connects its loose ends with facile but welcome clarity." She described it as having an "engaging cast of characters" and called the depiction of the British experience of World War II "gutsy and deeply disturbing, just as the author intends it to be." Francine Prose of The New York Times wrote that Atkinson "nimbly succeeds in keeping the novel from becoming confusing" and argued that the work "makes the reader acutely conscious of an author’s power: how much the novelist can do."
The Wall Street Journal's Sam Sacks dubbed Life After Life a "formidable bid" for the Man Booker Prize (though the novel was ultimately not longlisted). He said the high-concept premise of "Ursula [contriving] to avoid the accident that previously killed her [...] blends uneasily with what is otherwise a deft and convincing portrayal of an English family's evolution across two world wars [...] all the other characters seem complexly armed with free will." He found the resolution related to the prologue as "rushed and anti-climactic". But Sacks also said that "she [brings] characters to life with enviable ease", referring to the erosion of Sylvie and Hugh's marriage as "poignantly charted". Also, like Maslin, he lauded the novella-length Blitz chapter as "gorgeous and nerve-racking".
In NPR, novelist Meg Wolitzer suggested that the book proves that "a fully-realised world" is more important to the success of a fiction work than the progression of its story, and dubbed it a "major, serious yet playfully experimental novel". She argued that by not choosing one path for Ursula, Atkinson "opened her novel outward, letting it breathe unrestricted".
The Guardian's Sam Jordison expressed mixed feelings. He commended the depiction of Ursula and her family, and Atkinson's "fine storytelling and sharp eye for domestic detail". He argued, "There is real playfulness in these revisited moments and repetition never breeds dullness. Instead, we try to spot the differences and look for refractions of the same scene, considering the permutations of what is said and done. It can provide an enjoyable and interactive experience." He criticised the portions outside Britain, however, and said overall that the book has "an abundance of human warmth, but it just isn't convincing. There is much to enjoy – but not quite enough to admire."
In 2019, Life After Life was ranked by The Guardian as the 20th best book since 2000. It was written that the "dizzying fictional construction is grounded by such emotional intelligence that her heroine’s struggles always feel painfully, joyously real." The novel was 20th in Paste's list of the 40 best novels of the 2010s, with Alexis Gunderson arguing, "No one gets to live as many lives and have as many second chances to get the next step right as protagonist Ursula Todd. But in a decade where the real world swung between wars and elections, there are few more clarifying literary escapes than Life After Life. [...] Atkinson’s sage weaves a heartbreaking, frightening and beautiful journey that’s written with tenacity and grace."
It was listed as one of the decade's top 10 fiction works by Time, where it was billed as "a defining account of wartime London, as Ursula experiences the devastation of the Blitz from various perspectives, highlighting the senselessness of bombing raids. The story of her multiple lives is both moving and lighthearted, filled with comic asides and evocative language about life’s many joys and sorrows." Entertainment Weekly ranked it second, with David Canfield arguing that Life After Life "seamlessly executes an idiosyncratic premise [...] and contains a seemingly endless capacity to surprise", but that it "will stand the test of time for its in-between moments — its portraits of wartime, its glimpses into small domestic worlds, its understanding of one woman’s life as filled with infinite possibilities." The novel was among the honourable mentions on the Literary Hub list of the 20 best novels of the decade.