Study Guide

Life After Life Memories and the Past

By Kate Atkinson

Memories and the Past

Pamela complained that she had never had a surprise party and Sylvie said, "Of course you have, you just don't remember." Was this true? Pamela frowned at the impossibility of knowing. (9.3)

It's incredible how many of our memories just disappear. We have to rely on others to remember for us, or risk forgetting certain things entirely.

"From a more scientific point of view," [Dr. Kellet] said, "perhaps the part of your brain responsible for memory has a little flaw, a neurological problem that leads you to think that you are repeating experiences. As if something had got stuck." (20.84)

Here, Dr. Kellet attempts to use science, versus his typical method of spirituality meets metaphysics, to explain Ursula's déjà vu, and he seems to arrive at the conclusion that it could be neurological time lag, or something similar.

Ursula still harbored the feeling that some of her future was also behind her but she had learned not to voice such things. (20.175)

This is Ursula's way of describing her déjà vu, and the fact that she can somehow remember things that have yet to happen, sometimes.

"Quite Jamesian, really," she heard Teddy say. (Had he said that?) (22.178)

In one of her last moments before death, Ursula is "remembering" something that Teddy said in a previous life, the one in which she was beaten to death by her abusive husband at the end of Chapter 20.

It was like an echo, or rather the opposite of an echo. An echo came afterward, but was there a word for what came before? (23.10)

It seems like that word would be "déjà vu." Okay, it's two words, but this is a concept often discussed in the book, and we think it fits the feeling Ursula is having here.

Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. (24.114)

Ursula is living her whole life in retrospect. With a memory of how past lives went, she can do her best to change things and affect the future.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing," Klara said. "If we all had it there would be no history to write about." (24.125)

Ursula tries to use her somewhat supernatural hindsight to eliminate "history" in other timelines, like when she shoots Hitler. Too bad she doesn't live to see how that might change the world.

"We cannot turn away," Miss Woolf told [Ursula], "we must get on with our job and we must bear witness." What did that mean? Ursula wondered. "It means," Miss Woolf said, "that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future." (25.28)

Memories keep people alive, and in times of war, that's about all you can hope to do, because you can't save everyone.

Ursula tried to think of the meadow at the back of the copse at Fox Corner. Flax and larkspur, corn poppies, red campion, and oxeye daisies. She thought of the smell of new-mown grass and the freshness of summer rain. (25.303)

Ursula has to rely on her memories during wartime in order to get a little peace and quiet. When bombs are falling on London, about the only thing she can do is try to put herself back into happier times.

It was a long time ago now. And it was yesterday. (25.601)

Isn't that how memories often work? You can think of something that happened years and years ago (or, for Ursula, in a past life), and it feels like it just happened.