My birthday was last week. I turned 48, and I’m still trying to figure out where my thirties went, let alone what I’m supposed to do with nearing the half-century. I’ve always had a difficult time with time passage–even as a young adolescent, child, really, I was obsessed with the passage of time and the waves of nostalgia. As a control freak, I suspect much of this has to do with my need, always, to be in control of my environment. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to let go far more than I ever could as a youth–thank Gods–but, alas, this skill isn’t applying to the passage of time.
Like Shakespeare, the older I get the more I’m horrified, haunted by time gone by and wanting to slow things down:
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
For my birthday, appropriately enough, my husband bought me a copy of a book by my new favorite author, Kate Atkinson. The book isn’t one of her Jackson Brodie mystery series (of which I’ve devoured all, in a week, she’s so good), but an award-winning novel that’s fairly new on the market, called Life After Life. It is at once haunting and heartbreaking, witty and life-affirming. It is a masterpiece.
And it’s obsessed with time and lost chances, the cyclical nature of time (rather than linear), the ability to touch the world around you as you’re drifting through events beyond your control. Perfection.
So intense is this book that I actually had to put it aside for two days while reading (something that’s unheard of when I’m into a book as much as I was this one) because I’m already having a very difficult time with, well, time (see how that word shows up?). I did pick it up and finish it today, and while my obsession isn’t abated, and I’m not more in control than I was previously, I’m able to focus my fears into the world of Ursula Todd, the protagonist who lives several lives in this novel, each folding back on the other, bumping into each other as in dark alleys, holding hands with each other as close friends.
Science Fiction fans are often enamored of the alternate universe theory; this novel takes a similar idea and both expands it and focuses it. What would happen if one both dies repeatedly and, simultaneously, never dies? What if events could be altered by following déjà vu?
What if time were, as stated by the protagonist in the novel, a palimpsest?
What if you could do something to alter the events of World War II for millions of people?
As always, Atkinson creates characters that you want to keep spending time with, faults and all. So real you can touch them, even these set in 1910 to 1967. Like Shakespeare, Atkinson is an astute observer of how people think, how voices from our loved ones accompany our daily tasks, how nuggets of wisdom can become self-fulfilling prophecies. She is also in complete understanding of how relationships change, evolve, over decades.
And, as in all her novels, she is a master weaver, creating tapestries of words, characters, perspectives, missed chances, met chances like no author I’ve ever read. The results are always far different from what you expect as the weaving is happening, even as you think you’re looking over her shoulder and are “in” on her pattern.
I’m no better at dealing with my fear of time passing. I have no idea how to reconcile the age on my driver’s license with my mental picture of myself (somewhere around thirty, I believe). I am, however, gratified to know I’m not alone, and I’m also quite pleased to have shared the first half of the 20th century with the Todd family; I can visit them whenever I wish.