A baby is stillborn in the winter of 1910. Time rewinds and the baby is born again in 1910, this time surviving until she's a toddler, when she drowns. Back to 1910 again, and another birth, and a different set of life events. The baby is Ursula Todd, and the book follows her as she lives through alternate possible lives.
The description might make the book sound a bit gimmicky, and at the start I was a little bit worried that this might be all there was to it, because the first few chapters all play out the same period of time over and over (from the 1910 birth scene) which seemed like it would be interesting but maybe not enough. But as the book progresses, and the lives become longer, the alternate lives thing seems to become less relevant as you become more wrapped up in the characters.
In fact, the more you read, the harder it is to remember which events happened in which "life". Ursula is the same person in each story: she doesn't develop different character traits, and so her constant presence means that her "past" becomes a not unpleasant blur of events which all seem relevant. On top of this, Ursula herself experiences a form of deja-vu which suggests she does have some kind of memory of her alternate life stories. There's are sort of Cloud Atlas type moments where events from one storyline are reflected in another - where Ursula may not notice, but we spot that she's seeing the same event but from a different perspective.
You might assume that the book's message is that life is futile and death inevitable, but death is made to seem like not such a bad thing, when it's simply a prelude to being able to have another chance at life. I suppose that more interesting is that life can take very different courses from a single starting point.
The writing was excellent, and didn't feel contrived or forced at all (which I guess means Atkinson probably spent a lot of time on it) - it was just really easy and pleasant to read. The sort of book you want to carry on for ever.
Completed : 31-Dec-2013