Reincarnation and the life of the mind/soul beyond the body are concepts that interest me. Really, the nature of life and reality – why things are the way they are…these philosophical questions intrigue me deeply.
Two novels I recently read have opened up glimpses of possibility about the nature of the soul through time. One is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and the other is The Reincarnationist, by M.J. Rose.
In Life After Life, the main character, Ursula Todd (called Little Bear by her father), lives out countless episodes of life, dying successively and repeatedly from various causes. The entire book takes place during the first half of the twentieth century; no other centuries are revisited, and Ursula remains “herself” in various situations, relationships, and professions throughout the book. She tries to rewrite her own fate and that of her family and friends, as some essence of memory, often obscure, remains in her psyche from one life to the next. She feels a terrible responsibility for the fates of others, but it would seem that she is the only character in the story plagued with this syndrome. And yet, each family member or friend who appears in the story reappears in each sequence, leading the reader to assume that they too are living successive lives and deaths. We are simply not privy to their inner thoughts.
It is explained at one point late in the novel that the nature of time is a palimpsest, in which each set of circumstances lived does not precede or follow another. Like in an oil painting, the images and events of each life are layered over the previous sequences, forming a new image or layer.
What if all of these lives were lived simultaneously, and there were no past, no future, just pure experience in all of its forms and permutations? What especially delighted me about Life After Life was the wonderful writing, which contained a fluidity and special magic. The continuous deaths and rebirths never seemed unrealistic, abrupt, or undesirable. The novel is extremely readable and incredibly real, with an amazing flow and vividness of description.
The suspense novel The Reincarnationist follows a more traditional view of history, both personal and collective, as well as of rebirth. The quality of writing is solid, but definitely of a lesser literary quality than Life After Life. More plot driven, the characters are less dimensional, but the descriptions and historical scenes are quite evocative. Nonetheless, it is an excellent thriller. The main character, Josh, after a nearly deadly encounter with a terrorist suicide bombing in Israel, becomes prey to successive PTSD-like “attacks” of what are revealed to be past life memories resurfacing. Three different lifetimes intertwine themselves into the fabric of the story: the present Josh Ryder, a journalistic photographer, Percy Talmage, poisoned by his uncle in the 1880’s in an intrigue involving a set of ancient memory stones and, Julius, in ancient Rome during the violent transition between the traditional pagan rites and the imposition of Christianity in 4th century Rome by Emperor Theodosius (if I remember correctly). Julius experienced a forbidden intimate relationship with Sabina, a vestal virgin during the last years of the cult. Pregnant, Sabina’s fate was death by suffocation – she would be buried alive after the birth of the child. Various themes run through the book involving art, history, antiquities, archeology (the burial vault of Sabina is found, containing ancient Egyptian “memory stones” coveted by various nefarious characters through the successive histories throughout the story).
The nature of time in The Reincarnationist is summed up by a quote by Victor Hugo cited by the author: The tomb is not a blind alley: it is a thoroughfare. It closes on the twilight. It opens on the dawn.
In this philosophy as reflected in this novel of suspense, each life lived is connected to the next, and karma plays a central role. The nature of time is not quite linear, because the past continues to live in the present, and perhaps the future as well, but the future is not referenced or mentioned in this novel. Harm that is done in the past, or hurt that is experienced can be redeemed if, with the opportunities of a new life in a new body, a person chooses to make different choices with different outcomes. From one life to the next, certain individuals maintain relationships with one another in different forms. Free will is maintained throughout.
It is interesting to contemplate the nature of the continuity of the life of the soul and the mind beyond the confines of time, beyond the limits of the physical body. Suddenly, this shift in perception lends us more time to learn and evolve, and, depending on how we conceptualize the nature of time, energy, and life, the possibilities for our growth and the opportunity to love and to grow are indeed endless. The nature of life, of self, is a great mystery, and yet so often we live our lives submerged in a sea of banality. Deep beneath the surface of the conventions we have invented to get through our days lies an incredibly complex tapestry that ties all of our personal potentialities into a unity of purpose and intention that is always in flux. The literary format of the novel allows us to gaze deeper into the possibilities of our own realities and into the conventions that we collectively accept as the foundations of our lives.