My hubby’s Gran once told me that as you grow old you don’t regret the things you’ve done as much as you regret the things you wish you’d done. She lived well into her 90s so I guess she knew what she was talking about, although her philosophy does tend to assume that the wished-for-but-not-done things wouldn’t have been so reckless/stupid/unlucky as to have (a) killed her or (b) caused irreparable, life-changing, physical or emotional harm. Carpe diem! Yes – but only up to a point.
So how do you know where to draw the line? How do you seize the day and also live to see (but not regret) the next? In other words how do you get life right first time? Or – better – what if you could live again and again until you get life to work out how you want it to? (Better because if you haven’t experienced bad by what yardstick do you measure what’s good?) This is the basic premise of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, winner of the 2013 Costa Novel Award.
Ursula is born during a snow-storm in 1910. She dies at birth, strangled by her umbilical cord. She dies in childhood accidents and illness. As an adult she dies at the hands of an abusive husband. Later she dies several times in the Second World War, mostly in London during the Blitz – described by Atkinson as the “dark, beating heart of the novel” – but also, in a variation that sees her living in Germany, in Berlin just before the Russian occupation. Post-war she commits suicide. Pre-war she shoots Hitler to prevent him coming to power (“one of the most potent and familiar” what if scenarios according to Atkinson).
It’s Nirvana with a twist: “coming back as the same person in the same circumstances” but tweaking certain things, making certain changes, apparently small but actually the difference between life and death. Or as Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, would have it, “Practice makes perfect.”
**** One of the best books I’ve read this year.
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