Life After Life

Life After Life


Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life: A Long Hard War, Oct 1940 (I) Summary & Analysis

A full-scale raid is in progress, bombers droning overhead and shells whistling by. Ursula, Miss Woolf, and Mr. Simms are sitting on the roof of a house, watching green, blue, and orange flames shoot up along the Thames as Holborn is bombed. Mr. Simms comment on the show: “savage and yet strangely magnificent.”
Ursula and the rest of the rescue squad have become so inured to war that they are no longer horrified watching bombings far away. While on an intellectual level they acknowledge how the bombings are horrific, they can’t help but see them as magnificent, like fireworks.
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Ralph lives in Holborn, but Ursula knows he is on the night watch at St. Paul’s cathedral. He had given her a tour one evening a few weeks after Ursula’s visit to Fox Corner, and the following afternoon Ursula suggested they return to his apartment and go to bed together. They had then had sex (though Ursula had thought of Crighton the whole time).
After her experience with Jürgen, Ursula again reasserts her agency in her relationships. Whereas norm dictates that she and Ralph would not have sex prior to marriage, Ursula takes her desires into her own hands.
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The rescue squad returns to their own sector, and Ursula keeps watch with Miss Woolf in Ursula’s apartment. Miss Woolf believes in the war, but her religious faith and her faith in “God’s plan” have started to crumble. She also believes that many of the Germans themselves are not in favor of the war—merely supporting it because their economy had collapsed after World War I.
Miss Woolf’s religious questioning recalls Dr. Kellet’s earlier statement, in which he says sometimes a bad thing must occur to prevent a worse thing, but that in some circumstances, it is difficult to imagine anything worse. World War II is exemplary of the latter case, and does call into question the goodness of any “fate” or “plan” that has been created.
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Related Quotes
Miss Woolf and Ursula are both terribly depressed, as Mr. Palmer has recently been killed by a delayed-action bomb at an incident they had attended. When they tried to move him, his body had come apart like a “Christmas cracker.”
Once again, Atkinson gives a vivid example of the toll that the war takes on the people who died as well as the people who survive and have to deal with the aftermath of so much death.
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Ursula had seen Jimmy a few weeks prior, and they had spent a night on the town with Millie. At a coffee lounge, Ursula had gone to the bathroom, where she found a girl crying noisily. The girl tried to fix her makeup and “mop up her tears.” She introduced herself as Renee, and offered Ursula a cigarette; Ursula realized the cigarette case belonged to Crighton. Ursula returned to the lounge, and she, Jimmy and Millie then went drinking all evening. Ursula asked Jimmy to promise not to die in the war.
In this timeline, Ursula does not know Renee as she does when she lives at Argyll Road, and Crighton has also broken things off with Ursula. Thus, this small encounter eventually allows her to reconnect with Crighton later in the war, as she knows that Renee has his cigarette case—the latest example of how small changes in circumstance can have larger ramifications later in the story.
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