When I first heard about the concept behind the novel, I was intrigued. It sounded slightly similar to Replay to me, but in the case of Replay, the protagonist relives his life from certain points of time, and remembers everything every single time. Ursula, this novel's main character, does not remember her past lives, and each time she dies, her life starts over from the beginning (sometimes the reader goes all the way back to the beginning with her, other times Atkinson only takes the reader to the relevant decision point in that life). While she does not remember her past lives, she does get bad feelings and develops a bit of deja vu that prevents her from making the same decisions. For example, one of her deaths is the result of her falling off a roof in pursuit of a toy tossed out the window. When she finds herself in the same scenario again, she looks out the window, gets a bit scared, and leaves the toy outside. She basically knows enough to avoid her life going the same way as before. In one instance, she is also portrayed as believing the rumors of Nazi Germany fairly early on - she has a sense of things or an inkling but no actual real factual knowledge that follows her from one life to the other.
Ursula is born repeatedly in 1911, and depending on which life, her life basically spans two World Wars. Of all her different lives that this novel chronicles, her longest one extends into the '60s, but the majority of the novel takes place between that snowy day in 1911 and the end of World War II. When I was a few chapters and lives into this novel, I was concerned that this might be one of those novels that I appreciate more than I like because the chapters were rather short, and there wasn't much time to develop a relationship with the characters before starting over. However, as the novel went further, and Ursula made it past the age of two or three, this was no longer an issue as some of the chapters would extend much longer. Early on, Atkinson also tells quite a bit of the story from her mother Sylvie's perspective, While I liked Sylvie in the beginning, her reaction to one of Ursula's lives tainted my view of her even in timelines where that event didn't happen. I quite enjoyed the rest of Ursula's family as well - the obnoxious older brother that no one in the family really likes, her steadfast and in charge sister (who actually reminded me of the older sister in Behind the Scenes at the Museum), the younger brother that everyone loves, and the sweet and supportive father. Through her lives, Ursula sees the war from different sides, has different lovers and attempts different outcomes with each of them. Her sense of deja vu not only prevents her from making similar mistakes repeatedly, but also allows her to test various choices and to affect events in other people's lives.
In some cases, her choices may lead to a longer life but they don't always lead to a better life. I also liked that in some circumstances, it took Ursula several tries to change events enough to prevent her death. For example, it's easy to avoid falling off a roof once it's happened once, but in the case of a virus and the Great Influenza epidemic it will of course be much harder to avoid contracting that. Similarly, given how many raids occurred during the Blitz, it also makes sense that it would be harder to avoid dying during one of these.
I ended up liking the book a lot. Ursula's circumstances make her unique but as far as her personality, she seems very much like an ordinary, every day person, thus making her a great stand in to show how things during the war affected normal people's lives in a variety of positions. I'm looking forward to working my way through more of Atkinson's catalog now that I have read both her first and most recent novels.