“Mom, after someone dies and becomes a ghost, do they become a kid again?”
My four-year-old asked me this just a day after I finished reading Atkinson’s book, Life After Life.
“Well, some people believe that. It’s called reincarnation.” I told him, wondering if his earlier comment about how I should wear a certain necklace “the next time I got married” was related to this conversation.
While I’m not sure Life After Life is about reincarnation, parallel universes, or a hybrid of both, it nonetheless has an intriguing premise: a woman lives her life again and again, with small tweaks here and there that enable her to live longer in one life (or shorter), or follow a completely different path in another.
Ursula Todd is born (and reborn) in a snowstorm in Britain, 1910. She is primed to live through the first and second World Wars, which makes for an interesting perspective in its own right. Through Ursula, Atkinson explores themes of family, fate, intuition, free choice, and, obviously, mortality. One thing I like about this book is that there are many tongue in cheek moments, even in the darkest places Atkinson ventures. But I wouldn’t describe this book as funny. It can be a bit heavy at times, yet Atkinson does a great job of giving levity here and there to remind us that even in the darkest times, there’s always hope, if not in this world, then well, you know.
We learn what life in the English countryside is like, as well as life in London during the World War II Blitz, and we even learn a little about life in Germany in the 1930’s. As with Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Atkinson explores that nagging feeling you sometimes get about something, but can’t quite explain. She also explores what life might be like if that niggling feeling moves toward awareness.
And it’s this final point, that got me thinking about what my son said next, after asking if after people die and become ghosts, they become kids again.
“After I became a kid again, my house looked different” he told me as matter of factly as if he’d just said there were clouds in the sky.
While I haven’t gone all in on the prospect of reincarnation, the goosebumps on my arms reminded me that some things, like Atkinson’s book, or a conversation with a four-year-old, just might make you wonder.
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