If you had your life to live over…

Sometimes I like awake in bed going over the many times in my life when I’ve been foolish, weak or blindly selfish, and rewriting the script so that I behaved as I wish had I behaved.

What would it be like to actually have the chance to live your life over?  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a women who had that chance, not just once, but many times.

Her heroine, Ursula Todd, dies or is killed at least 15 times, including once in childbirth in 1910, four times in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and three times in the London Blitz in 1940.  On each new iteration of her life, she has a dim memory of having lived before.

She learns to survive the ‘flu epidemic by pushing a family servant girl, Bridget, down a flight of stairs and making her break her arm the night before she would have gone into town and gotten inflected.

In later lives, she achieves the same result by telling Bridget lies that cause her to break up with her boyfriend, thus depriving her of the reason to go into town.

But no matter how many times she lives, she can never realize all possibilities.

During one iteration of her life during the Blitz, a man sitting next to her on the Tube (subway) notices she is good at working crossword puzzles, gives her his business card and says he is recruiting “clever girls.”  She decides to follow up on this, but loses the card.

We the readers know, as she does not, that she has lost a chance to be a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  That chance does not come again.

The Blitz is the “dark beating heart” of the book, Atkinson wrote in an afterword.  She was born in 1951.  “During the war we were weighed in the balance and not found wanting.  The more I read about the war, the more I think that … we really were at our best then, and I would have liked to have known that.”

The book is “about being English,” she wrote.  “Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination,” she wrote.   Yet Ursula lives one of her lives in Germany and dies in Berlin in 1945.

Ursula decides to change history by assassinating Hitler.  In the following life, she learns German and marksmanship, makes the acquaintance of Eva Braun in 1930 and is introduced to Hitler.  She pulls a gun out of her handbag and gets off one shot, because being shot down by his bodyguards.

This is the end of the book. It is where I, as a long-time reader of science fiction, would expect the novel to begin.

What does she do next?  Will she do the same thing in all her subsequent lives—devote herself to preparing to kill Hitler, dying in a hail of bullets at the age of 20, and never knowing for sure what effect her sacrifice had? Or perhaps, in repeated lives, perfect her technique so that she can kill Hitler and get away with it?

I’m reminded of the science fiction novel Replay by Ken Grimwood.  In that novel, a 43-year-old American, Jeff Winston, who is in a bad marriage and a bad dead-end job, dies of a heart attack  and finds himself an 18-year-old college student in 1963 again.

He happens to remember all the Kentucky Derby winners and all the World series winners, as well as the names of the most successful corporations, so he makes a fortune as a bettor and investor.  Then he dies again at 43, and starts again, living a completely different life.

He lives a number of lives and always dies on the same day in 1988.  Eventually he meets a woman who also is a replayer. The two of them try to change history, with disastrous results.

In the end, the cycle comes to an end and the two of them find themselves taking up their old lives where they left off.  “The possibilities, Jeff knew, were endless.”

Why such a difference in the two books, one protagonist living repeating her life path and trying to get it right, the other exploring many different possibilities?

Maybe it is the difference between the life situations of a British woman in the first half of the 20th century and an American man in the second half of the 20th century, exploring many different possibilities.

One explanation of the difference is that Ursula Todd is strongly attached to her parents and her brothers and sisters, whereas Jeff Winston starts out without thought of family attachments that he cares about.

What would you do if you could live your life over and over again?  Would you want to?

 

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One Response to “If you had your life to live over…”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    I have said that if I could live my over I wouldn’t make the mistakes I made but would have a whole different set of mistakes.

    Like

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