Ursula lived many lives. The first time, she died as she was being born, strangled by the cord around her neck. The snowstorm prevented the doctor from arriving in time.
“No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.”
In the next chapter, Ursula is born again, but the doctor managed to arrive before the storm closed the roads. The baby survives. “She observed the turn of seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mould and mushroom of autumn.”
Ursula is born in 1910. We already know that ahead of her are two world wars, the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic, as well as the potential calamities that may befall anyone, any time.
Just a beat of the butterfly’s wings and all may change.
She keeps being born and living longer, although not necessarily longer than the last time. Unlike the movie Groundhog Day, she doesn’t explicitly remember past events of the other existences. But deja vu is a sixth sense for her: “And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said or what mundane incident was about to occur.”
“Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.”
When she arrives at a point in her life where she had previously died, she feels ‘an imminence’, a shadow. “And the terrible fear — fearful terror — that she carried around inside her.”
She gradually comes to realise that she has to do something to change the unknown but imminent event.
Life is a series of choices. Some choices at the time and up close seem inconsequential and minor, but each choice takes one along one path and not the other. Sometimes you can only recognise the really significant fork when it’s behind you, and you are now too far away to tread that path. “She no longer recognized herself, she thought. She had taken the wrong path, opened the wrong door, and was unable to find her way back.”
The story is like the tides of the sea. Like waves. The story comes in to shore, recedes, comes back in again but closer, then recedes. Each time the same but with a bit different shape, a bit further in, and always marking the passage of time.
Beautiful prose, wonderfully inventive plot line, and rich imagery -- this is her best work yet.