Have you ever regretted something you’ve said and/or done? I’m sure you have. And I bet you wished you could take it all back, go back in time and do things differently, or at least have more than one life at your disposal so you can reduce the level of suckage.
We don’t have those opportunities for restarts, or get spare lives to use whenever we want, like in a video game. While someone figures out a way to immortality or the retail of supplementary life spans, reading well-written fiction would be the closest thing to having multiple lifetimes. Besides the escapism, I love that readers get to live out different lives with every story and see varying viewpoints. (I know an author said something about this but I can’t find that particular quote, or even remember who said it.)
But what if we can actually have multiple lifetimes across decades, even centuries? Two authors, Kate Atkinson and David Mitchell, explore the pros and cons of living more than once with their books, Life After Life and Cloud Atlas.
In short: YOLO? LOL ur funneh.
Life After Life is about Ursula Todd and her many reincarnations, starting in 1910. Basically, whenever Ursula dies (or whenever “darkness falls”), she comes back to life in 1910 and gets another go at things, kinda like Groundhog Day minus the day-long narrative limit.
With this frequent rebirth, Ursula gets plenty of chances to get the most important things right. What’s notable here is not everything and everyone stays the same after every rebirth — she takes on wildly different lives, bringing to mind the butterfly effect. Here are some of her wildly different lives: She was a baby strangled by her umbilical cord, an unsupervised child drowning in the ocean, the casualty of several accidents and illnesses, a victim of domestic abuse, a student/tourist turned wife and mother in pre-war and wartime Germany, a government worker and neighborhood warden during World War II, one of the many deaths in London due to the horrific bombing raids, an elderly woman dying of natural causes, and even Adolf Hitler‘s unexpected frau assassin.
David Mitchell employs a different tactic for Cloud Atlas. He tells six seemingly unconnected stories, the first story set in the 1850s and the last one going all the way to an unspecified time post-apocalypse. He makes things even more interesting by using time jumps and abrupt cuts: one story starts, progresses, hits its peak, then ends suddenly, followed by a seemingly unrelated chapter. I actually thought I missed out on something or clicked on the wrong button; I eventually figured out that that’s really how the book is structured. Only after the sixth (and the sole uninterrupted) chapter do the other stories unfold, but this time they’re told in reverse order until we get right back to the story in the first chapter.
Sounds confusing, right? Yeah, at least in the beginning of both books. It took me a while to adjust to these unconventional narratives, but I got used to it as I continued reading. It’s not abnormal for a dead character in a previous Life After Life chapter to pop up again in the next one, and it can be challenging to keep all the unfinished storylines in mind as you go on with Cloud Atlas.
Mitchell goes further by employing several narrative techniques: interview, personal correspondence/letters, diary entries, mystery/crime/action story, and first-person narration. The sixth chapter was the hardest for me to read because of the way Zachry speaks, stopping short of inventing his own language like Alex of A Clockwork Orange or Pygmy of Pygmy. But like with Ursula’s time jumps, I became fluent in Zachry-speak in no time.
Overall, I say these are excellent, highly creative ways to keep readers reading. I don’t know how I can go back to the straightforward, vanilla storytelling method. 😉
Themes and Threads
Life After Life‘s themes are clear from the onset. Mainly, it’s about how one person can have myriad lives, depending on the decisions they make at a particular time in their lives, informed or otherwise. These decisions can sometimes have major effects and alter their entire course. Then again, sometimes, the result’s the same no matter what you do (e.g., Clarence Dodds, Renee Miller), or you’ll need a few tries — and therefore, lives — to get it right (e.g., Bridget; Teddy and Nancy). It’s fun to see how minutely or drastically things change with each iteration.
Atkinson’s novel is big on gut feel and irony, things I love to see translated well on paper. Sometimes Ursula would get strong feelings of déjà vu, which becomes more pronounced as she takes on more lives. And with every life, more wrongs are righted, but not so that everything becomes perfect; it’s just a slightly different version of the world with a new set of challenges to deal with.
I also loved Atkinson’s playfulness with her narrative — like that one time Ursula’s darkness fell and instead of dying yet again, she actually woke up to see another day in that lifetime. (I can imagine Atkinson saying “just kidding, guys!” as she wrote that part.) Some sentences and characters hit close to home, too. I could relate well to Ursula’s views on death and religion and her lone-wolf mentality; Izzie’s eccentricity, extravagance and weirdness; and Maurice’s distance from his family. The child isn’t the only one to blame, folks.
Unlike Atkinson and her do-over strategy, Mitchell makes his characters live multiple lifetimes through reincarnation — all the main characters have a “comet-like” birthmark in the same spot. His novel’s message is that (like his mini-stories) we’re all connected in various ways, and we can effect changes in others. Then again, sometimes we end up becoming pawns and hapless victims despite good intentions and actions.
Cloud Atlas also delves into racial issues, showing the progression from the 1850s (slavery) to “The Fall” to the post-apocalyptic era. Glad to see it gone by Zachry’s time! Another aspect Mitchell emphasized is humans’ intense hunger for power and control, and our tendency to decimate everything we try to conquer. Which bodes well for our future as a species, right? 😉
Notable Sections and Characters
Hello, bullet points.
Life After Life:
- Ursula’s lifetime involving Derek Oliphant as a disgusting lying and abusive spouse, and brutally beating her up several times — and then him finding her at Izzie’s and killing her by slamming her head on a table, twice — is highly distressing. The same goes for her abortion after Howie raped her in her own home, or young Nancy Shawcross getting kidnapped and killed. Oh my poor, panicking, breaking heart.
- The chapters on Bridget getting ill and then passing away the next day — and Ursula’s many attempts to save her (and consequently, her and Teddy as well) are hilarious. Except for the actual death scenes, of course. But Ursula’s various attempts to turn the events the other way… That’s Groundhog Day style right there!
- The stories set in World War II were interesting for me. I felt like I was in the middle of a London bombing raid, or right next to Ursula as she hung out with Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler in Germany. I do wonder how the world would’ve turn out if Hitler was assassinated early on!
- A big chunk of the book focused more on Sylvie Todd than Ursula, making me wonder if I’ll ever get to know the supposed main character with a nasty penchant for dying. I also began to deeply hate Sylvie after she blamed her own daughter for getting raped. Utter hatred for a fictional person — that‘s how bad it got.
- The structure and diversity of the stories are much appreciated. Result: it never became a boring read. Adam Ewing’s story resembles a formal record on colonization, slavery and pure friendship. The Luisa Rey chapter’s an action-packed short story that could definitely be made into a movie. The Orison of Sonmi-451 is an all-out sci-fi tale. Zachry’s story presents a frightful image of a world where almost every living thing, human or otherwise, are dead and gone. Tim Cavendish and Robert Frobisher’s stories are all about writing (books and music, respectively) and journeys — Frobisher’s to a better life and a lonesome death, Timbo’s to freedom from a nursing home.
- Out of all the stories, I liked Sonmi-451’s the most. The substitution of words (e.g., disney for films, sony for mini-computers (much like today’s phones and tablets), kodak and nikon for photos) amusingly highlights the new corpocracy, and the twist that everything — from Sonmi’s manufacture to ascension and rebellion— was actually engineered by the corpocracy to prevent fabricant uprisings is amazingly heartbreaking.
- The stories are also connected by several elements and references, aside from the comet-shaped birthmark. I particularly loved the Hydra reference going all the way back to the Luisa Rey story (not Marvel’s Hydra), as well as “Swannekke” being used for the Seaboard island in Luisa’s timeline and a horse-riding tribe in Zachry’s timeline.
- Mitchell likes to take the direct route at certain points. The first Frobisher chapter describes Cloud Atlas‘ narrative structure, while the very last Ewing chapter basically explains the whole point of the book in clear print.
Life After Life and Cloud Atlas definitely fall into the “long reads” category at over 500 pages each. But both also left me hanging in the end: I wanted to see more of Ursula leading more crazy lives; and see actual scenes of The Fall, or maybe know more about the Prescients and where they are beyond “Ha-Why”. When a book makes me say “That’s it? I want more!”, yeah, it’s real good. Good thing I got two for this round. 😀