The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for a feeling of déjà vu


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Ailment: Déjà vu

Cure: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

The discomforting sense that you have lived through this moment already baffles laymen and scientists alike. Some link it to epilepsy; others to past lives. We all experience it from time to time; but Ursula Todd, the heroine of Kate Atkinson's most recent novel, lives her entire life as a series of déjà vu moments so powerful that her parents send her, aged 13, to a psychologist in an attempt to get to the bottom of it. They never do; but reading this novel will give you a positive new spin on the strange phenomenon.

One snowy night in 1910, Ursula is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Delayed by the weather, the doctor arrives too late to save her. But then, with the next chapter, comes a different version of events: this time the doctor arrives in the nick of time, and Ursula survives. Until, that is, she's five, and cousin Pamela tempts her too far out to sea. But then this scene, too, is revisited; now a passing painter pulls her to safety before she slips under. And so it goes on, with critical moments repeating themselves but with different, life-saving endings.

All this is as harrowing to the reader as it is to Ursula: few characters in fiction die so many times, after all. But after a while Ursula begins to sense the possibilities open to her, and averts disaster by almost subconsciously willing a change in the course of events. And so she avoids not just the fatal Spanish flu, but also rape and various awful fates during the Blitz. And as she becomes increasingly adept at saving the day, she sets her sights on something bigger – killing Hitler, and thereby saving her brother Teddy's life, as well, of course, as countless others.

Our heroine's ability to use déjà vu to her advantage is a skill we should all acquire. Next time it happens, consider that this moment you're re-living is a blessing in disguise: a moment in which you have somehow averted a disaster that was waiting to happen.