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Originally published Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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‘Life After Life’: One woman’s story, told and retold

A review of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” — sure to be one of the year’s most-talked-about novels, according to Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn.

Seattle Times book editor

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Although it's probably too late now, it's best to read '"Life After Life"... MORE

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‘Life After Life’

by Kate Atkinson

Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, 529 pp., $27.99

Kate Atkinson’s new novel, “Life After Life,” tells the story — excuse me, stories — of Ursula, a strange, sturdy and very brave young girl born into an English family in 1910. Ursula dies in the second chapter, at the moment of her birth, and then is reborn, again and again and again.

This “Groundhog Day”-like premise — that Ursula is fated (or doomed) to relive her life until she gets it right — is at the core of a novel that’s sure to be one of the most talked-about books of the year. “Life After Life” is a dazzling juggling act that plays with chronology, conventional narrative and the meaning of existence.

In her previous novels, including “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” and her four detective novels featuring detective Jackson Brodie (starting with “Case Histories”), British author Atkinson, with an ever-so-dry sense of humor, has also shown an uncanny knack for testing the limits of her characters’ brains and hearts. But “Life After Life” demands more — of Ursula, and of the reader.

Ursula becomes a teenaged rape victim, abused wife and murder victim. Or — one flicker of fate later, in another life — she is a war hero, pulling bodies from bombed London buildings. Some of Atkinson’s finest writing in this novel is devoted to the horrors of the Blitz and World War II.

Or she lands in Germany, walks in to a photography shop and becomes best friends with Eva Braun, Hitler’s girlfriend, enduring a rain of bombs on Berlin in the closing days of World War II. Or a dignified London lady, who dies a peaceful death in 1967.

Ursula is tested, over and over and over again. And the reader is, too — who wants to watch characters they come to love die dozens of deaths? Who wants to watch a young girl, attempting a toy rescue, tumble from a roof? Informed by Ursula’s previous lives, the reader may find herself groaning inwardly, “Don’t touch that doll!” “Don’t go down to London on Armistice Day!”

As “Life After Life,” progresses, the logic behind the sequence of alternate histories begins to unfold. Ursula is moving slowly toward her ultimate fate. A pattern emerges from the palimpsest (Ursula’s term for the way she sees time and existence, a scroll wiped clean to be written upon again). And the reader will develop a new appreciation for the precious quality of each moment we live — why, as the doctor said, we should enjoy every sandwich.

Who knows when the thread of life will be cut short? Ursula’s rare gift is that someone, or something, has given her a chance to get it right.

I predict that as you read this book (by all means, read this book) your life will look different. What if you had said hello to that girl you were too shy to greet? Succumbed to the undertow of homesickness your freshman year? Sat on your hands, instead of sending in that application, writing that letter, jumping into the deep end of the pool?

As she lives her life over and over again, Ursula begins to be aware of something — a purpose to all this. A calling. Late in the game, she thinks, “I give in ... Whatever it is, it can have me.”

The premise of “Life After Life” comes from a quote by the Greek philosopher Pindar. Become such as you are, having learned what that is. Ursula finally learns who she is, and the world changes.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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