Imagine a novel about a woman who is reborn each time she dies, until eventually she manages to live a long and "correct" life. That's the premise of two recent novels, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life: A Novel, and Jenny Erpenbeck The End of Days. (I read Erpenbeck in it's original German, but Amazon tells me it's available also in English).
Atkinson's is the more famous and popular of the two. It tells the story of Ursula, born in 1910 to a comfortable upper middle class English family, who dies at birth, is straightaway reborn, and keeps at it for decades. The first few times are accidents which are then corrected next time round; along the way there's a growing awareness. Among the mishaps which are corrected in repeat versions of her life are various accidents, a couple of rapes, a couple of badly mismatched marriages - one of which can't be terminated until her daughter dies in Berlin in 1945 thus freeing her to start again - and as time goes on, eventually also the lives of others. There are parts of the story which are constant in all versions, and characters with immutable traits which overcome all repeat versions of Ursula's life, while others change from version to version.
The heart of the book, and by far its most powerful section, deals with the London Blitz, which she sometimes survives and other times doesn't; there's one dramatic night which she lives through (or not) again and again, from three or four different vantage points.
Imperceptibly there's the encroaching understanding of how to operate her unique ability, to keep at it until the story is lined up "correctly"; at the very end we understand that perhaps she's not even the only character in the story who knows about her ability and appreciates it.
I expect this is a book one might wish to read a second time, to pick apart the strands of the story and see its twists and turns.
Erpenbeck's book is by far the deeper of the two. It tells the story of an unnamed woman born in a Polish shtetl before World War One, who eventually lives to be 90 in post-unification Germany. Each section of the book tells the story of her family up to or a bit beyond her death; the next section then assumes she didn't die and tells the story of how things worked out in that case. She dies as an infant, or doesn't, in Poland. As a teenager, or not, in Vienna. As a German communist in Moscow, or not, under Stalin. As a famous poet, or not, in East Germany. As an old woman, in unified Germany.
We meet 7 generations of her family, from her great-grandparents, orthodox Jews in the shtetl, to the rumour of her grandchildren, German teenagers ignorant of any family history in the present, There's a motif of a set of volumes of German poetry which bump into the story throughout the generations; but the thing is that we're the only ones who know it. The profound irony of the book is the inability of the family to maintain its memory. Those contemporary German teenagers don't have the foggiest notion of their Jewish forbears; the woman herself never knows significant parts of her own story. At one point, the only way to transmit a very important piece of identity is by having her die so her son can bump into it; when she doesn't, he doesn't, and so it is lost.
It's an elegiac book, and it stays with you, even as it shows how the history doesn't stay in the family.
I have no reason to think Atkinson and Erpenbeck knew of each other as they wrote to so very different novels based on the same impossible premise.