Sluggish brain, red-rimmed eyes, feverish gums, aching limbs, a general state of lassitude punctured by guilt, with a blurry restlessness tugging at the edge of consciousness: if you recognize the symptoms, you likely recall your last hangover, the baffled sense of days stringing endlessly ahead of you. Except what I am experiencing now is not caused by overindulging in liquor or illicit substances, but by reading deprivation. No, I am not stranded on an island with only my discharged kobo for company. I have book hangover.
A few weeks ago, after much soul-wrangling and a gentle yet firm nudge from my book club companions, I picked up Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The book jacket ran a decidedly unappetizing infobar about some British gal with the name of an animal (Ursula, i.e. she-bear) being born one snowy night in February and dying over and over again over the course of the novel, only to be reborn under the same circumstances and trying to correct earlier mistakes until she finally gets it right. Sounds redundant/repetitive/yawning? Yep! Does it remind you uncomfortably of those reincarnation theories you used to cozy up to in high school, when you were still seeking your true self etc etc etc? You bet! And if that was not reason enough to be wary, the book cover featured the stylized image of a fox. What??? I thought the name of the main character had something to do with bears?
Well, if there is one instance you should not judge a book by its cover, this is it! All it took was half-a-page and I was hooked, hook, line and sinker. I read with my flashlight under the pillow, with the book tilted towards the street light while stepping off the bus, hunched over my desk at lunch breaks, chewing on my fingernails on route to the bathroom, or sneak peaking over my shoulder as I was making dinner (shoot, what’s with the acrid smell tingling my nostrils? Burnt rice or a vivid mental image of blitzkrieg bombings from chapter 6?). To recreate a key family gathering from the novel, I was serving up veal chops lightly seared in batter, with a fluffy basmati and wilted kale tossed with lime, paprika and roasted pine nuts, as well as two fingers of amber-coloured single malt, mellow, broody and full of dark secrets like the English bog.
I cannot disclose the contents of the narrative without giving the plot away or sounding trite like the book jacket. I can say the action moves effortlessly from Downton-esque village life to claustrophobic picket fence existence, from WWII civilian carnage to choreographed German rusticity, from post-war penury to the flush 60s. The characters are brilliantly drawn and stay with you long after you turn the last page (causing in some cases severe hangover that put you off reading anything else, because it just cannot come close to what you read before). And you cannot help but ponder upon the book’s message, and how small chance events have the power to alter the course of your existence and of mankind, and to what extent you are in charge of your destiny and also of that of others? Just as the snow falling on Ursula’s day of birth, how we as individual snowflakes are able to band together in one big storm that blankets the earth and nourishes its roots throughout the winter of history until the welcome arrival of spring.