Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

  • This summary of Life After Life includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Life After Life Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson begins in medias res. This term means that the novel begins in the middle of the story. In fiction, there is a difference between the story, or plot, and the narrative arc. By starting a story in medias res, an author can effectively hook a reader, and provide background information along the way. Life After Life begins in 1930, at a party. The point-of-view character, a young and unnamed woman, arrives expecting to see the supreme leader.

With the clues Atkinson plants in the beginning of her novel, the reader soon learns that this leader is none other than Adolf Hitler. The young woman encounters him, and he flirts with her, but she is not there for flirtation or to admire him. She is there to kill him. The woman takes her chance, but fails, and everything goes black.

As is common with in medias res stories, Life After Life then moves backwards in time. The year is 1910, and a baby is experiencing a difficult birth. Winter weather keeps the doctor away so that the pregnant mother, Sylvie, is alone with her scullery maid, Bridget. Sylvie’s husband, Hugh, is also away. His sister has run away to Paris and he is trying to track her down.

Sylvie’s baby is born, but the umbilical cord is wrapped around its neck. The baby’s heart stops beating, and Sylvie and Bridget presume the child has died. Dr. Fellowes arrives at that point and is able to save the baby. This is Sylvie’s third child, and she is naturally emotional, ecstatic that the child will survive. Dr. Fellowes does not care for her emotional outburst, and leaves early the next day to Sylvie’s delight. At this point, the reader still does not know the sex of the unnamed child.

Before Sylvie and Hugh’s marriage, she had been a carefree girl. Her father’s death turned her world upside down, and she and her mother lost everything. Her father had racked up gambling debts that eroded the family fortune. Her mother died not long after, and at the age of seventeen, Sylvie met Hugh. Hugh is not poor, but neither does he have the wealth that her family enjoyed during her childhood. She reflects on all of this after her baby is born. She names her baby Ursula, which means she-bear. Her other children have mixed feelings about Ursula. Maurice, her oldest child and only son, is disappointed not to have a brother, but his sister Pamela is glad to have a sister.

Sylvie receives a telegram from Hugh. He is having a difficult time finding his sister, Isobel. He plans to stay in Paris to continue looking for her. Sylvie does not immediately write back because she is not sure she what to write about Ursula. Concerned that the baby could not breathe for a little while after she was born, she does not want to write happy news to Hugh only to have something to happen to Ursula while he is away.

The story then moves forward to 1914. Sylvie, Pamela, and Ursula are at the beach. Pamela and four-year-old Ursula are playing near the waves when Pamela drags Ursula into deeper water. When a wave crashes over them, Mr. Archibald Winton pulls them out of the water, but Ursula has already drowned and died.

She is reborn, and when she returns to the beach, she stays out of the water and tells Pamela to avoid it too, not wanting her sister to die. They both survive the day at the beach, but in Ursula’s place, her cousin Roland dies. Ursula repeatedly loses her life. She falls off a roof after going up to retrieve her doll. The maid passes on a deadly strain of the flu. As an adult, she dies during an abortion. During the war, she dies multiple times. All of these past lives eventually mash up, causing a psychotic break.

Through all these deaths and rebirths, she has been guided by Dr. Kellet, who educated her about reincarnation. Kellet convinces Ursula that there is a reason she has this gift—and that is to assassinate Adolf Hitler and save the world from World War II and the Holocaust. Ursula takes her own life, knowing she will be reborn.

When she gets close to Hitler in the previous timeline, the one that started at the beginning of the book, she almost manages to shoot him, but someone kills her first. When she is reborn, Ursula makes different choices that help keep her family together and prevent Sylvie’s suicide. The different choices she makes allow her to meet Benjamin Cole, whom she loves and marries.

Redemption is a major theme in this novel. Ursula dies and is reborn again and again until she makes the decisions that lead to her heart’s desire.