“‘There are some Buddhist philosophers (a branch referred to as Zen) who say that sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening,’ Dr Kellet said. ‘But, of course, there are some situations where it’s impossible to imagine anything worse.’” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is one of those books that will make you question the nature of reality. It is certainly thought provoking and provides some historical learning, it will also make you laugh and cry, as well as entertain you. In short it is a literary masterpiece!
Do you believe in reincarnation?
I am coming round to the idea more and more these days. One life just isn’t long enough to experience and learn everything an immortal soul would strive to achieve.
I’ve often pondered about when people die young, the tragedy of a life cut short: the pain of their loss on loved ones, missing their presence and wondering what they might have done had they survived. So much unfinished business. And then there is how their death impacts other lives to the extent of what they do going forward.
A few days before my 20th birthday, unexpectedly my first love perished in a motorcycle accident. He was 22 years old. I had been on the back of his motorcycle many times before, (I still am something of a speed freak), but I never got on a motorbike again after his untimely and tragic death.
I couldn’t accept that he had just disappeared; here one minute, gone the next. I was in a dreadful state and moped around the house for many weeks. I couldn’t stop myself thinking about having seen him lying at the undertakers. It was the first and only time I have seen a dead body. It didn’t look like him. His life force was not animating his body. I began think about where his spirit or soul energy had gone.
Did it exist outside of time and space?
I had the sensation that his spirit was near and around me in those early days, a feeling that’s hard to describe.
It was at that time I started to believe in the divine nature of the soul. It comforted me to think of him as an immortal soul occupying a temporary body, having a human experience; as opposed to a mere body that originates in oblivion and returns there.
When we do have spiritual experiences it is like returning to our natural state. What Deepak Chopra terms as ‘lightness of being’. He asserts that we are light beings in essence.
I feel like I am the watcher, the sentient being, the spark of consciousness that pervades the universe, just as every human is; aware of being alive, able to use sensory outlets and emotions to heighten experiences. According to Chopra we are the infinite creators, conscious agents in the matrix of the microbiome of life!
It’s an intriguing idea that every sentient being is an aspect of infinite consciousness experiencing the finite, entangled into a genetic uniform and personality.
How can we explain why we are drawn to certain people, places or careers, why we enjoy certain activities or the talents we have, why we make the choices we do?
Perhaps our choices reflect our level of consciousness or soul wisdom in any given moment…
“Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realised their significance.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
There are particular phenomena I’ve gone through, such as having an out of body experience and various moments of déjà vu, the feeling of having lived in a particular place, (such as Paris), meeting some individuals you feel like you’ve known your whole life after only a few minutes.
Then there are some people you just resonate with.
I suppose that’s why this book’s premise drew me in; I needed a profound read as I set aside moments to rest over the last few weeks. I’ve experienced a litany of unpleasant after effects recovering from the coronavirus, and I knew that reading a good book would hook me, forcing me to spend some quiet time.
Life After Life did not disappoint…
“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact, an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
The baby in question is Ursula Todd, and her stories also revolve around her family: mother Sylvie, father Hugh, siblings Maurice, Pamela, Teddy and Jimmy and her wayward aunty Izzie. Not forgetting the acerbic cook, Mrs Glover, and the scullery maid, Bridget who live at the idyllic ‘Fox Corner’ in rural Beaconsfield (not far from me).
The novel’s time span runs from 1910 to just after the Second World War. There are plenty of opportunities to die between two world wars…
“At times life seems to be a cruel game. The only justification for it is that in reality it is only a dream. That is why there are so many differences in the world. Some people are poor, some are rich, some healthy, some sick, and so on. You have had many experiences through many incarnations and you will have others in future incarnations, but they should not frighten you. You must play all parts in the motion picture of life, inwardly saying: ‘I am Spirit.’ This is the great consolation that wisdom gives us.”
~ Paramahansa Yogananda
If I could get to the crux of the genius of this book, it is how the author creates such lifelike, vivid characters, building on and altering their circumstances during each of Ursula’s lives in a way that is not repetitive or dull.
Their characters don’t change through each incarnation, but their life paths are modified depending on the choices that Ursula makes.
There are quite a few childhood deaths, handled with sensitivity by the author, but nonetheless still sad. Then there are the incarnations that Ursula has where she has made it to and sometimes through World War 2, and the amazing descriptions of her lives in London during the horror of the blitz.
“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”
“And if we are killed?”
“Then others must remember us.”
Even the people she meets in that phase of her blitz lives are memorable, like Mrs Appleyard and her infant Emil, the Nesbit sisters, her senior warden at the ARP, Miss Woolf, Mr Durkin, the violinist Mr Zimmerman and Mr Bullock.
September 1940 is revisited a couple of times in Life After Life:
The multiple deaths that occur around Armistice due to the Spanish Flu are poignant, especially given our current Covid-19 situation, and how Atkinson weaves slightly different scenarios each time, all leading to the same inevitable fate – except one.
Two of the saddest lives Ursula has are when she is raped by a friend of her older brother on her sixteenth birthday and becomes pregnant and that lifetime ultimately ends in tragedy. In another life she meets him again on the same birthday, but handles the situation differently and so does not end up being violated.
11 November 1918
“Everything familiar somehow. It’s called déjà vu, Sylvie said. “It’s a trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery. ‘ Ursula was sure she could recall lying in the baby carriage beneath the tree. ‘No,’ Sylvie said, ‘no one can remember being so small,’ yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, turning and twisting in front of her face. Sylvie sighed. ‘You do have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.’ Ursula didn’t know whether this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear – fearful terror – that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. ‘Don’t dwell on such things,’ Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain. ‘Think sunny thoughts.’”
The other life is when she first has an ominous encounter with her future husband, Derek Oliphant while studying at secretarial school. I wept through that chapter (Like a Fox in a Hole), as anyone likely would who has been in an abusive relationship. It touched a raw nerve that I didn’t even realise was exposed.
Then there are the lives where she spends her mature years in Germany, where she becomes friends with Eva Braun…
Life After Life is not just clever but totally absorbing. After a certain amount of lives Ursula’s feelings of déjà vu begin to surface during her childhood and into adulthood, as her various realities are lived out, with her subtly making different choices that impact her outcomes and those of her friends and family.
She develops a kind of inexplicable intuition, an instinctual, emotional palimpsest of past realities that influence her thoughts and feelings.
Whilst I don’t personally believe in reincarnation into the same body and life, (I lean towards the school of thought that we take different forms with each go around the mortal block over aeons of time), it did not stop me from immensely enjoying Life After Life. It is utterly brilliant.
Reading Life After Life also made me feel that as difficult as things are at the moment for all of us, it does not compare to the hardships earlier generations went through for many years during these conflicts.
I think I need to leave some time for this book to fully settle in my psyche before I read her highly acclaimed follow-on novel, A God in Ruins (focusing on Ursula’s younger brother Teddy’s time in the RAF).
“Become such as you are, having learned what that is.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life