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A Riveting Ode To Being Born Again -- And Again

There’s a sense in all of Kate Atkinson’s fiction that something nasty lurks just out of sight; that fierce sensibility drives her stunning novel ”Life After Life,” about the many lives and deaths of a British woman trying to survive the world wars

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Don’t back Kate Atkinson into a genre. Although she’s best known for her brilliant series featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie, you can’t really label her a crime writer. “Once you put a detective in a book, you’re doomed, really,” says Atkinson, 62. “I don’t like the way people want to limit you.”

Her latest novel, Life After Life, explodes any preconceptions. It’s been called experimental lit, sci-fi, and historical fiction — and it manages to be all and yet none of those things. Atkinson centers her novel on a Groundhog Day-like conceit: Ursula Todd is cursed to die over and over again, and each time she does, we return to the wintry 1910 night on which she’s born. (In one iteration, Ursula lives long enough to find herself amid the rubble of the German blitz on London during World War II and faces down Hitler himself.) Atkinson downplays the enormous achievement of juggling all these elements without getting absurd or repetitive. “This was one of the easiest books I’ve written,” she says. “Nobody believes me because it looks quite complicated, but it has a beautiful rhythm to it: She dies, she lives, she dies, she lives.”

Atkinson says she took particular relish in killing Ursula in a multitude of ways. “I love writing death scenes,” she says with a laugh. “There’s huge writerly satisfaction to be had from writing one because you can pack it with all the bells and whistles of feeling.” She adds, “We writers live on the dark side.” The author already has two possible new novels percolating in her mind, one of them a companion to Life After Life. It’s safe to assume that whatever she does next will surprise us. “I think I need to move on to romance,” she jokes. “That way I could have written in every genre.”