Life After Life

Life After Life


Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kate Atkinson

Atkinson was born in York in 1951 to a shopkeeper. She studied English literature at Dundee University and graduated in 1974. She later taught at Dundee and began writing short stories in 1981. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, published in 1995, won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year award, beating Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. She has become most famous for a series of crime novels featuring ex-policeman Jackson Brodie. Life After Life and its companion novel, A God in Ruins, both won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Atkinson currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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Historical Context of Life After Life

Life After Life’s plot spans much of early twentieth-century history in Britain. Ursula is born in 1911 and experiences both World War I (in which Hugh and many of her neighbors fight) and World War II. World War II becomes particularly central in the latter half of the book. The rise of the Nazi Party and fascism in Germany, coupled with Adolf Hitler’s charisma and nationalist ideology, led to his seizing power in Germany and the overthrow of democracy in 1933. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and Great Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Europe was then locked in a six-year-long war between the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and later Japan) and the Allied Powers (Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, France, and eventually the Soviet Union and the U.S.). In the novel, Ursula experiences this conflict in-depth, as both of her younger brothers fight in the war, and Ursula herself becomes involved as a part of the rescue team that helps extricate people from the wreckage of nightly bombing in London. Additionally, one of the novel’s timelines sees Ursula experience the war from the German side, as she watches firsthand the rise of the Nazi party and even interacts with Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun. In another of Ursula’s lives, Ursula assassinates Hitler in 1930, just as the Nazi Party is starting to gain popularity. This prompts a thought experiment (as Atkinson does not show the fallout of this action) about how the fate of Europe might have been different if Hitler had not been alive to lead the Nazi Party.

Other Books Related to Life After Life

Two years following the publication of Life after Life, Atkinson wrote a companion book, A God in Ruins, which follows Ursula’s younger brother Teddy through World War II and beyond. Another book that shares Life After Life’s unique structural device, and subsequent philosophical questions about the nature of fate and time, is Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. This book follows protagonist Harry August through fifteen versions of his life—like Ursula, he is born into the same circumstances each time he is reborn and regains some of the knowledge of his previous lives. Life After Life is also a unique World War II book because it examines civilian and family life during the war rather than focusing on the military experience or the experience of Jews in the Holocaust; other books that take a similar perspective on the war include Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Additionally, Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis explore the ramifications of small changes on history, as it deals with time-travelling historians who return to World War II to research the time period, but who end up sending time and history spiraling out of control.
Key Facts about Life After Life
  • Full Title: Life After Life
  • When Written: 2010-2013
  • Where Written: North Yorkshire, England
  • When Published: 2013
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: England, Germany
  • Climax: Ursula kills Adolf Hitler; Ursula is reunited with her brother Teddy after the war.
  • Antagonist: Adolf Hitler
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Life After Life

A Sequel’s Structure. Life After Life’s companion book, A God in Ruins, follows the life of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy during and after World War II. The structure of that book, in contrast to Life After Life, follows a much more straightforward line.

An Award is in Order. Atkinson was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2011 for her services to literature.