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Real booker material...
11 December, 2013
The snake devouring its tail is an ancient symbol of wholeness, infinity, renewal, and eternal return. It symbolizes the cyclic nature of the universe, creation out of destruction, life after death. Likewise, the famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, advanced the concept of the Shadow self, the parts of your self that are hidden from society. The process of becoming whole, psychically, is to integrate the unconscious (Shadow) and conscious selves, through deep meditation, dreams, or long journeys that build awareness.
If this seems too much of an academic introduction to the brilliantly epochal novel by Kate Atkinson, it is also a reference to the finely calibrated structure and themes of life...after life. Atkinson time travels her narrative back to Feb 11, 1910, repeatedly, so that her protagonist, Ursula Todd, can return again and again to rebirth and renewal. Right from the beginning, Ursula dies quickly after birth. Then she returns. Dies rather quickly again. In subsequent lives, she may take longer to die. But through each of these lives, we learn a lot more about Ursula. And, so does Ursula learn more about herself. For example, after a tragedy in one life, Ursula tends to feel a sense of something, or a chill, when the tragedy is coming close in the next life, and can often do something to prevent its reocurrence, even though she is not quite sure why she is doing it.
Atkinson did it with such holographic clarity that I wondered how it had not been done a thousand times before in literature. If I searched for similarly structured movies, however, GROUNDHOG DAY and BUTTERFLY EFFECT would come to mind as cousins, perhaps.
There is certainly a purpose to this structure, but it isn't mechanical or expeditious. You may be scratching your head, wondering as you read, but you will settle in before long. The novel is so dynamic, and initially winsome (and subtly tongue-in-cheek), that you feel in the bosom of it, not at arm's length or outside the story. Is it a gimmick? No, it is the anchor. It doesn't seem segmented or choppy; rather, it all integrates, like Jung's concept.
Ursula's darkness penetrates to a metaphysical undertaking, and the reader is side by side with her odyssey. The author captures Ursula's moments of life-to-death-to-life enchantingly, yet poignantly, and the cycles nourish the theme of the story. Those in-between moments of life and death pique reader understanding, too. Her frequent returns don't feel repetitive, because Atkinson brings acuity and new observations for the reader to ponder.
"...she could feel the shining, luminous world beyond calling, the place where all mysteries would be revealed. The darkness enveloped her, a velvet friend. Snow was in the air, as fine as talcum, as icy as the east wind on a baby's skin..."
The author also weaves in penetrating allusions to the unconscious mind within the chaos, destruction and detritus of war. The settings(s) of the novel preside like a primary character, one in which repeated experience manifests deeper understanding. Like Ursula, I am inclined to return, time and again, and let the pages encircle me into the "black bat of darkness" and the snow blazing white of day.
"Time isn't circular. It's like a...palimpsest."
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