Books Carti

Time and Consciousness in “Life After Life”

Experimenting with narrative time

It seems to me lately that more and more sources of storytelling are staring to experiment with non-linear time. The de-synchronization of the different narrative threads is mostly responsible for the initial confusion in Netflix’s The Witcher. Seamless use of analepsis and prolepsis, although in themselves nothing new, I found in two of the latest novels I’ve been reading, namely Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. However, one of the most interesting and original experiments with narrative time comes from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

The novel has been praised as a great account of London during the Blitz, in the Second World War, however I am more intersted in what happens to Ursula, our protagonist after she dies: we are taken back to 1910, when she was born, and a new timeline is created. We follow said new timeline until another horrible event befalls Ursula and she dies again. And again. And again. This is not a Buddhist cycle, and thank God for that, as I find our recent fascination with Eastern pseudo-religions quite a tiring cliche. Ursula always comes back as herself, in the same circumstances, but each time a new thread is spawned she makes different choices at crucial moments when horrible things have happened in other timelines. The reason for this, however, is not random and I believe this little aspect is where Atkinson really shone in the creation of her novel. At every critical moment, Ursula feels something awful is about to happen and instinctively knows, subconsciously, what exactly that would be, thus taking active steps in order to prevent it. For example, in most timelines, she pushes the houshold’s maid down some stairs so that she wouldn’t be able to travel to London in 1918 and contract the Spanish flu, which would have led to both their deaths.

Needless to say, this has very interesting implications. Information is preserved, in the form of her (sub)consciousness, which propagates itself from one timeline to the next. Since we constantly return to 1910 or other important years in her life with each death, the narrative time is not exactly linear. But it is not exactly circular either, since the timelines seem to suceed one another in the order that they occur in the novel. There is thus a timeline time, from 1910 until Ursula’s death, and a higher order time, of the succession of the threads, allowing Ursula to accumulate tacit knowledge of life, the future, and herself. It would look something like this:

IMG_0093

Towards the end of the novel, after several pseudo-reincarnations, Ursula becomes very aware of all this herself, realising that she has lived similar events before and she knows what is about to unfold. She also offers the perfect metaphor for how time and consciouness works in her story, by saying that time is a palimpsest. The timelines do come in a sort of succession of layers, with the ones on the top “being based” on what has been underneath.

For the interesting exercise in fiction alone, this is a hearty recommendation.

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