Thursday, May 8, 2014

Kate Atkinson Explores Deja Vu in Life after Life

I’ve often walked into a room or simply spun 180-degrees to find myself in a familiar place where I know the people and what they are about to say. Those brief glimpses into an unknown past or unseen future are unsettling. Time and reality have somehow become supercharged.

These moments are best known as deja vu, a French phrase meaning already seen. Such moments are inexplicable. Some believe they are trace memories of past lives, and this is the belief that informs Kate Atkinson’s excellent novel, Life after Life.

Ursula, the protagonist, lives and dies and lives again many times through the course of the novel. The character’s name, derived from the Latin word, ursa, meaning bear, is a diminutive form and means Little Bear, the term of endearment chosen by Ursula’s father, Hugh. More important, perhaps, are the traits attributed to people named Ursula; they are thought to be intuitive, contemplative, with “a desire to understand and analyze the world they live in, and to learn the deeper truths.”

Image of Buddha
Atkinson’s Ursula is indeed intuitive. She’s often called an old soul in a child’s body and just as often, senses the hazards that carried her into the darkness in a previous life. To the great delight of readers—at least, this one—Ursula strives to understand her world and others in it. She lives, life by life, toward deeper truths. But in one of those incarnations the truth of déjà vu is terrifying, described by Atkinson with the following words:

“…suddenly the terror descended, swift as a predatory hawk. An anticipatory dread of something unknown but enormously threatening. It was coming for her, . . . . She felt dizzy and there was a veil of fog in front of her face. Like bomb dust, she thought, yet she had never been bombed” (Atkinson, Kate. Life after Life: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2013 Print. 504.)

Fear not, however, Atkinson’s novel is not dark and fraught with trauma. The drama therein involves the sorrows and woes that exist in every life, but it never oppresses or feels too heavy to bear. We learn Ursula will live again and anew, each time perfecting herself, each time growing in her understanding.

Ursula does not survive infancy until she does. She almost never has children of her own, and when she does, she lives as an outcast. She is always one of the smarter people in the room, but sometimes emotional needs prey upon her, rendering her vulnerable. Usually her companions and lovers are worthy of her. Often the work she does has value. And in all these incarnations, she reminds us of the questions that plague our dreams: What if I had taken that job, not this one? What if I had not turned from him? What might my life have been then?

Ursula slowly discovers, as we all do to one degree or another, that she is a witness, one charged with the duty of discovering one’s purpose, and for each of us, that includes how we might serve the greater good. Ursula arrives at her purpose, embracing it with love and in the knowledge that “…the practice of it makes it perfect” (Atkinson, Kate. Life after Life: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 2013. Print. 509.)

Reading Challenge:

Don’t fail to read Life after Life: A Novel. It will satisfy your desire to imagine different outcomes and endings for beloved characters.

Writing Challenge:


Write a different outcome for one of your favorite characters.