Thursday, January 08, 2015

"Life After Life," and the Concept of Coming Back... as Yourself

Have you read it?
As I was stressing out about topics for what is now my big TWO-POST STREAK, a book I read a few months ago popped into my head: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.

If you haven't read it, I'm definitely not ruining anything by revealing that it's about a baby born in 1910—Ursula Todd—who immediately dies... but then keeps being reborn (in the literal sense) and living out alternate versions of her life. Sometimes other people do something that affects when or how she dies. Sometimes her own choices are what change things. It wasn't one of my favorite books because I could never quite connect with any of the characters, but its overall concept is what I found fascinating and has stayed with me ever since.

When I was reading it, the first thing that came to mind was friends who have lost children. I don't think there can be anything worse than that. This book gave me some sort of weird hope that maybe there really could be a ton of different scenarios that play out for each of us. That maybe a child who dies in the life we are currently experiencing does not in another instance. And then I extended that same thought to those I and others have lost who weren't children, but who were still taken from us long before their time.

What would Gwynnie do?I have always been drawn to parallel universe/alternate timeline stories and theories; those of you who followed my LOST musings know that I was so confident that's what was going on in the show's last few seasons that I never saw the real ending coming. The 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, about how different her character's life would've been had she not missed the subway one day, is one of my all-time favorites. (If you've never seen it, I urge you to find it and check it out.) And of course five years earlier in '93 I had loved Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray tries to tweak his actions in order to escape from living the same day over and over again.

There was also my childhood obsession with Choose Your Own Adventure books and early, text-based versions of role-playing computer games, where every decision you make leads you down a different path. In short, I have always loved this stuff.

This British cover is better.So Life After Life is based on this "what if this happened instead?" concept, with a type of reincarnation thrown in. Looooongtime readers of this blog may remember a 2009 post I did about my fear of coming back as a not-so-lucky person. One thing I've never thought about for one second before I read this book was the possibility of coming back AS MYSELF. I mean, sure, we've all had "ugh, if I could go back in time I would do this instead" musings, but the thought of actually dying and then being reborn as myself is a scenario that never crossed my mind. Nothingness, heaven, reincarnation as something/somebody else... these are all things I've thought about when pondering what happens when our time is up. But never coming back again as Erika Version 2.0—much less version 300.0.

I also never considered the concept of a third alternative to the "fate vs. free will" debate (another huge theme in LOST): maybe it's neither. Skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to be even remotely spoiled about the book, because I'm about to give my interpretation of its ending. Ready? SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH. The book begins with Ursula shooting Hitler. So I assumed that that was her "destiny"—the ultimate purpose of her life—to change history for the better because she was subconsciously aware of what horrors this man would eventually unleash upon the world. But then the book ends by restarting the story again right before Ursula is born. Which to me means that she really had no ONE purpose, that she will be redoing her life over and over again forever, each time getting to change things that will affect different people, for better or worse. I also got the sense that while we readers may have only been seeing things from mostly Ursula's perspective, other characters were also reliving their lives and subconsciously absorbing "do's and don'ts" for the next time around. It really got to me, because I'd like to think everyone has a purpose. Whether they actually achieve what they are put on this earth to do is another story, but I was extremely thrown by the fact that the book just restarted again after the Hitler assassination. I had a knee-jerk "THIS ENDING SUCKS!!!!" reaction, but then I calmed down and thought about it for another day. (By the way, that's what the best books should make you do, IMHO.) The more I thought about it, the more I liked that Atkinson didn't go the expected route and that she forced me to really think about the book's messages and themes. Oh, and by the way, lots of people have very different ideas about the book's ending, so I am certainly not trying to imply that my interpretation is the "right" or only one!

So although I wouldn't put Life After Life on my all-time favorites list, that doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend reading it. I'd recommend reading anything that's going to force you to do some deep thinking. Plus, some people looooove this book, so you might end up falling into that camp. For me, it served as not only a motivation to ponder The Meaning of Life and reflect upon the fact that I honestly wouldn't do anything differently in mine so far, but also a reminder of how much I just love to read. So that's another 2015 goal of mine, along with "start meditating daily again": READ MORE.

If you have finished Life After Life and want to chime in with your thoughts, spoilers ARE allowed in the comments below. So everyone else, avert your eyes if you intend to check the book out!

Oh, and for those of you who've read it, have you heard that a "companion novel" is coming out this May that follows Ursula's brother Teddy's life? It's called A God in Ruins. I probably won't get to that one right when it debuts, so if anyone else does, let me know if it's worth a read.

- e


Aunt J-ha said...

I read this sometime last winter and I got really emerged in it. I loved the way Ursula would make course corrections as she traveled through life, tweaking a little here and there until she was satisfied with the end result. Some of her lives ended so tragically...I wish I could remember more details but it was a long time ago. I know I cheered when she finally cleared her teenage hump without a scratch. I had not heard about the new book coming out, I will seek it out for sure.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure if this is the same kind of topic/genre you're interested in, but when I took a course in the study of time as a literary mode, one of the books that stuck with me most was Martin Amis' TIME'S ARROW. This isn't about reincarnation, but it employs a reverse timeline device that I found fascinating. If you care for science fiction/fantasy, the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons also has some timeline manipulations that were thought-provoking.

Erika (aka "e") said...

Liz - Thanks for the recommendations! I am ALWAYS adding things to my Amazon Wishlist in order to remember what I want to download in the future, so these have been added!

- e