One sentence plot
Ursula is born on 11th February 1910 in the English countryside and is vulnerable to the many hazards of life – but every time something kills her (from flu to murder), as it does at various ages, she is inexplicably reborn in the same place and time, with the residue of her previous experiences shaping the pattern of her subsequent, possibly infinite lives.
I was almost intimidated to read this book, having been assailed from all angles with rave reviews and promises of how much I would love it. And I suppose I sort of did, even though its concept mystified me.
Ursula is born, and immediately dies. Then she is reborn and lives for a bit longer before something else kills her. Then she is reborn and lives yet longer before, again, something kills her. And so on and so on. She has no memory of this happening, but a residue of memory is carried over into each life, so that, for instance, she finds herself inexplicably taking various measures to save someone’s life without knowing that was what she was doing. There is always a fascination to a ‘what if’ type of narrative, imagining parallel universes where our different decisions play out. What if Ursula had turned the corner instead of walking straight? What if she prevented the servant from going to London? What if she stood in one particular spot on one particular day… or moved a few metres? We find that things are sometimes transformed by her small decisions, but more often than not, different choices and different lives bring death in the same circumstances. Although sometimes not.
Ursula is a charming protagonist, sweet and clever and quirky, and I would probably have enjoyed reading any version of her life, had the narrative arc been more conventional. Although despite these laudable traits, I wonder about the depth of her personality as depicted in the pages of this otherwise beautifully written book. Her mother is fascinating and multidimensional and intriguing. I also rather like the glamorous rebel aunt Izzie. And I enjoyed how her siblings were drawn. But who is Ursula? For someone who died about twenty times during the book, I felt surprisingly little empathy for her, whereas I wiped a tear from my eye when I found some of the minor characters had perished. I’m afraid I found poor Ursula emotionally unengaging. I did care about her various fates though – I was horrified when she ended up miserably married. I was fascinated to read about her work and life during the blitz. I was nonplussed about her life in Germany. But I never felt like I really knew her. Maybe because her personality was partly in flux. This might be intentional and reflected in the repeated discussion of her brothers: “Maurice is Maurice”, “Jimmy is Jimmy”. However, Ursula is perhaps not quite Ursula, because different experiences shape her every time, rather than settling into a specific and certain personality as those not reliving their lives demonstrate.
I didn’t really get bored with all her rebirthing – in fact the book remains compelling, even though I didn’t really approve of such a vigorous device pinning down the narrative. It ends in what felt to me like a cursory place – Ursula could have been reborn infinitely. There wasn’t an obvious conclusion. There was no attempt to explain the numerous rebirths. I’m not sure whether the emphasis on her lack of children meant something. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what this book was trying to say. Maybe that you can never make the decisions that lead to you having a perfect life. There are different versions of a valuable life. Sometimes you impact the world, sometimes you don’t. And even if your life isn’t particularly impactful, it all ends the same way. Uplifting or depressing? I’m not sure. But it was clever and interesting and charmingly written and I enjoyed reading it.
The verdict: 4/5 shoes