A book of what-ifs. OK, technically all fiction is what-ifs – that’s why it’s fiction: it’s hypothetical. Life after life is meta-what-if. It tells and retells a woman’s life with myriad ‘sliding doors’ moments, subverting the idea of the Life Story into a fragmented array of what-ifs and or-maybes. Ursula Todd is born (or perhaps not) in 1910; what happens after that all depends. Perhaps she’s strangled by the umbilical cord at birth; perhaps she dies falling off a roof as a child; perhaps she has an abortion as a teenager and suffers a fatal infection, or perhaps she survives but is disowned by her mother; perhaps she goes to Germany and tries to kill Hitler, or perhaps she stays in England and lives through the Blitz. There may or may not be a child, lovers, a husband – who knows.
Nothing is established as ‘the actual truth’ of Ursula’s life, so readers who like having a solid story to follow that doesn’t vanish into a puff of metaphysics should probably avoid. Those who like pondering things like what ‘the actual truth’ about a life history is anyway are more likely to enjoy. It might also lead us to wonder what of the things that nearly happened, or that could have happened? Are things that didn’t happen part of our life story as well? And aren’t they all happening in a quantum universe anyway? Is the feeling of deja-vu when these simultaneous worlds synchronise? What does it all mean, etc?
This is a great big thought experiment of a book, which means a thumbs-up from me. It’s a bit repetitive at times as multiple retellings of the life story of the same person will inevitably be, and the dizzying hall-of-mirrors narrative means we lose some emotional connection with Ursula. But what an undertaking. Bonus points for nods to two of my favourite books, Howards End and Orlando – another gnomic central character who doesn’t quite conform to the normal rules of temporal existence.