‘There are no mysteries to solve, no sinners seeking redemption, no ambitions that need fulfilling.’ Quoted Journalist John Lui on his review of award-winning movie Ilo Ilo on The Straits Times LIFE! yesterday. I thought, how apt, for this was exactly my thoughts after I finished reading the above book, Life After Life.
This book came highly praised by Katie Arnold-Ratliff in her review for the April 15 issue on Times Magazine. I immediately put myself on the reservation list at my local library and got the book four months later.
How many times have we heard that life is a journey, and it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. How many times have I found myself repeating the same line to Aaron when I see him rushing through a book just to know the ending without really enjoying it? (He assures me every time that he does.)
This book does make rushing through to the end pointless, as I have found out. For every time the protagonist’s life ends, it starts again in similar situations but somehow, she manages to outlive her last life.
Ursula was born on 11 February 1910 on a snowy night. At the beginning, we learn that she died during child-birth as her cord was wound around her neck. The next few times of her birth, the cord was also wound around her neck but she was either saved by a doctor or her own mother and this gets repeated ceaselessly as she died in a drowning accident, or when she jumped through the attic window. The book progresses very slowly that it’s a little annoying to start the story again and again as you read that she gets save from drowning the next time, or an instinct stopped her from jumping out of the window which had killed her before. She was killed by the flu and then killed by an abusive husband, or in the war as the bomb fell in London. In one life, she even had a daughter, met Hitler and Eva, killed Hitler and got killed. Thus she dies again and gets reborn yet again. Throughout her new lives, she constantly has a sense of deja vu of having been there and done that.
Then you begin to wonder what’s the point of reading the book when there is really no ending. There is no suspense when she dies, for you know she’ll get born again. That’s where I remind myself to enjoy the journey of just reading, without a care of the ending. And it’s easy to do that as Kate Atkinson is a writer with a wry sense of British humour. And in Ursula’s family, we got to know her lovable and not so perfect family, each with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. There is her father Hugh, her mother Sylvie, her either brother Maurice, her elder sister Pamela, her two younger brother Teddy and Jimmy, her aunt Izzie, and her sitter Bridget and cook Mrs Grover, both adding some comedy to the household.
I like how Atkinson uses smell to describe household.
‘Their apartment smelled quite different to Mrs. Appleyard’s, lavender water and Mansion House polish – the scent of old ladies…Below them, on the second floor, were to be found Mr. Bentley whose apartment smelled of the finnan haddock he boiled in milk for his supper, and next door to him the aloof Miss Hartnell (whose apartment smelled of nothing at all)….’
Her descriptions often being on a chuckle as I read , such as this:
‘”Disappointed in love, I believe.” Ruth Nesbit whispered in mitigation to Ursula, clamping her bird-bone hand on her chest as if her own heart might be about to jump ship and attach itself to someone unsuitable.’
Is this book about reincarnation? Not at all, when you realize that she is born to the same life, same time and same family and situation. I wonder too as I read, that is it true that everything happens for a reason, for this book certainly dispel this fact.
So to readers who want to read the book, just enjoy the journey and don’t analyze too much, for sometimes the answers aren’t there (like the time she spotted that her mother Sylvie lied about her trip to London with a man, nothing came out of that later), neither is the ending if you think about it.