Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Life After Life

Life After Life was one of the most fascinating and well written books I've read this past year, but it was also one of the least satisfying and most frustrating. Kate Atkinson manipulates time and theories of reincarnation to tell an interesting story - one where Ursula, our heroine, is born and reborn repeatedly into the same time and family. 

Each birth eventually ends in death, and as "darkness falls," Ursula will be reborn to repeat events and the opportunity to make different choices. Sometimes it is a big choice that turns her fate, like the choice of a lover or husband. Sometimes it is something deceivingly small, like the decision to buy a yellow dress, enjoy a first kiss, or drop a purse in the street.

The book also abounds with evidence of the power of the individual to influence and change the lives of those around them. Just by being at the side of her childhood friend at the right place and time averts a tragedy that would have rippled at least two families' lives for decades. Life is so random. Or is it?

Technically outstanding it still demanded a huge suspension of belief with the premise. Philosophical references to Nietzche and Buddhism add an extra layer to the speculation, if not the credibility, of the storyline.

On one level I saw it as a writer having fun with the fates and destinies of her characters. But it was definitely thought provoking. Is all this birth and suffering meaningless and pointless? How do we break the endless cycle?  Should we simply embrace our fates without judgement? Are fate and destiny altered by choice? 

Many of the incarnations were dark and depressing - rapes, suicides, domestic violence, murder. Yes, those things do happen but many of us are fortunate to live relatively uneventful lives. Ursula, for whatever reason, seems impossibly cursed.

This was Kaarina's choice for the BPYC Book Club, inspired by a summer get together, when Niki spoke about the book and piqued our curiosity. Of the 7 of us there last night, 2 didn't like it, 2 loved it, the rest of the reviews were mixed in the sense that the readers liked the book almost as much as they didn't like it. A couple people confessed to not finishing it, although I'm not sure whether 'finishing' actually mattered, because the end is the familiar rebirth, and so it seems to go on an unending cycle.

Kaarina also treated us with an outstanding English meal with French and German accents to reference the geographic settings in the novel: poached salmon, cucumber and cress sandwiches, watercress salad and with different wines to taste (French Beaujolais, German Reisling). A decadently creamy trifle and an extraordinary Farmer's Blue Cheese with Port.

All this, with an amazing full moon rising over the clubhouse, made for a really amazing night!
Checked out my copy from the Toronto Public Library digitally for reasons of convenience. Although now that I've heard about Toronto library hardcovers with bedbugs and additional recent reports of books on popular loan carrying herpes and cocaine, e-copies have even more appeal.

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