What if you had an infinite number of chances to live your life over and over again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in 1910 a baby is born but dies almost instantly.
During that same snowstorm in 1910, the same baby is born but lives.
A few years later, she drowns in the ocean.
In those same circumstances, she is saved by a painter.
Life after Life is an astonishing story that discusses what could happen if one had the chance to keep living your life, but a slight change of circumstance or decisions change the path.
To give one such example:
On her sixteenth birthday, a friend of Ursula's brother forces a kiss on her. When he later comes to visit her, he rapes her in a back hallway. Her aunt gets her an illegal abortion, and some time later Ursula marries a man, Derek Oliphant, who reveals himself to be extremely violent. That life concludes with him beating her to death.
In the next version of her life, on her sixteenth birthday Ursula rebuffs the brother's friend's advances with a well placed right-hook and kick to the shin. Because of this, Ursula does not get pregnant, have an abortion, or meets Derek, but instead dies in an air raid.
The book is (obviously) complex but Atkinson handles it well, mapping out each of Ursula's life with great skill. It never feels unrealistic - all of the events that happen in Ursula's different lives probably did happen to various people - and the only notion that Ursula has of all these different lives are strange premonitions, the feelings of deja vu. In several cases, she tries to take it into her own hands - when she feels a dark premonition she does something to make it go away. One such instance was pushing a maid down the stairs, resulting in the maid breaking her arm, because Ursula is terrified that if the maid (Bridget) goes to London for Armistice celebrations something bad will happen (in the previous version of life, Bridget brought back influenza from the celebrations).
My description of the above shows how it would be so easy to get lost in this kind of narrative, so richly layered and complicated, but Atkinson guides the reader through well. The repetition of certain events doesn't get stale, because you're left wondering what will change. The darker thread running through, as well, is Ursula's thought of what would have happened if Hitler had never gotten a chance to live - would World War 2 have happened? What the world have been like?
It's an enjoyable, absorbing, and heart-wrenching (in places) read but well worth the perseverance.