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Life after life coverThis week’s haunting book is a novel about a privileged Englishwoman, Ursula Todd, born in 1910. She is born over and over throughout the novel, living a series of lives, each life slightly different from the one before.

Life after life poor Ursula lives, some lives happy, others not.

This book has been on many bestseller lists, but I have to say I got bored with the repetition of Ursula’s early lives. The writing is beautiful, and at times it is funny, but I was often ready to skim the next version of the bleak snowy night when Ursula was born. We see her birth about thirty times in the course of the novel. As some reviewers on Goodreads have noted, “it is just Groundhog Day in disguise.”

Nevertheless, Life After Life makes my “haunting book” list for 2013, because it poses haunting questions. The variations in Ursula’s lives ask the reader to consider: What is the role of chance and what is the role of choice in what happens to us? Is life a series of random events, or do we impact our fate?

I can’t say much more than that without spoilers.

SPOILER ALERT – THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN LIFE AFTER LIFE.

I said above that poor Ursula lives life after life, some lives happy, others not. And of course, for each of her lives (or most of them), there is a death. Sometimes her death, sometimes other characters’ deaths. Sometimes a death is prevented, only for the character to die in another macabre way in the next life.

Does Ursula die at birth? The next day? As a child?

Does she marry an Englishman or a German or not marry at all?

Does she get pregnant? Does she have a child? Does her child live or die?

Is she in England or Germany during World War II? Or does she prevent WWII by killing Hitler?

Some characters we love, some we hate. Some we get to see from several perspectives, some walk on and off stage in a flash. Over and over we see the iterations of chance and choice play out, like fractals of ice crystals on a frosted window.

The author’s depictions of English society and of the horrors of war for both the English and the Germans are realistic and grittily detailed. But overlaying the realism are the fantastical permutations of this one woman’s life, giving a mystical significance to the tiny details of daily living—the timing of a man’s dinner, the route home a girl takes one day as opposed to another, or the return of a cigarette lighter.

Ursula is vaguely aware of her feelings of déjà vu, as in

“. . . suddenly the terror descended, swift as a predatory hawk. An anticipatory dread of something unknown but enormously threatening. It was coming for her, . . . Like bomb dust, she thought, yet she had never been bombed. . . . “
“. . .
“There was always something just out of sight, just around a corner, something she could never chase down—something that was chasing her down.
“. . .
“The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside become the outside. Time was out of joint, that was for certain.”
 

Here are some more quotes that illustrate the haunting themes I found in Ms. Adkinson’s lyrical prose:

“No one can understand what goes on in a marriage, every couple is different.”
“I think there is something wrong with the human race. It undermines everything one would like to believe in, don’t you think.”
“No point in thinking,” she said briskly, “you just have to get on with life.”
Amor fati . . . .”
“Love of fate?”
“It means acceptance. Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced, I suppose.”
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right. Wouldnt’ that be wonderful?”
“I think it would be exhausting.”
 

I agree; it would be exhausting, I thought as I read. Just like the novel.

Then near the end, we finally get to: 

“. . . Ursula stayed where she was, worried suddenly that if she moved it would all disappear, the whole happy scene break into pieces before her eyes. But then she thought, no, this was real, this was true,”
 

But was it real? Was it true?

Only in this one life.

Other questions posed in the book, beyond the question of chance v. choice, are

    • What would you change in your past? What do you regret?
    • Would you change history if you could? (The Star Trek Prime Directive question)
    • What would you do for love? For desire? For revenge?
    • What is a good life? What is a good death?
    • What is real? What is imagined?
    • And, as one character asked,

“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?”