In the opening pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera raises a deceptively simple question: If you had to live your life over and over ad infinitum, would you make the same choices? Quicker than we can exclaim, "I'd buy AOL at $5!" Kundera draws us to deeper waters. "We can never know what to want," he writes, "because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives, nor perfect it in our lives to come."
Two delightful new novels, Margot Livesy's The Missing World (Knopf) and Timothy Findley's Pilgrim (HarperCollins), revisit Kundera's quandary asking anew what we would do if we got that fabled second chance. And while they differ in range and style--Livesy is a witty domestic realist, Findley a swashbuckling alchemist of history and fiction--the stories converge on a single notion: While we are indeed prisoners of time, we are by no means prisoners of our character.
In Livesy's tale, a journalist named Hazel loses three years of her memory when she is struck by a car on a North London street. As she struggles to regain access to the lost country of her mind, her ex-boyfriend Jonathan desperately tries to keep that territory verboten. During the erased three years, they had gradually fallen out of love, and to keep them together, Jonathan had spun lie after lie. Her accident is a golden opportunity for him: "If she had lost three years, then their rows, his slip-up, her moving out were all gone. Only harmony and happiness remained. What was the last thing she remembered, he wondered. Might it be their making love?"
Thus, when Hazel wakes from her coma, Jonathan brings her home and puts her under veritable lock-down in his flat. But instead of drawing them together, the forced solitude turns the place into a hothouse, the secrets hanging heavy in the air and just out of Hazel's reach. With no one to talk to, Hazel becomes the prototypical pale-faced woman sadly mooning out an upstairs window.
While he gets Hazel under control, Jonathan gears up for a big fight to keep their troubled past a secret. Hazel's best friend Maud, as well as the nosy downstairs massage therapist Mrs. Craig, knows everything and has reason to tell. They disliked him then, why not now? In one hilarious, teeth-clenching scene after another, Jonathan goes bonkers trying to monitor all of Hazel's interactions with them. Surprisingly, Mrs. Craig turns out to be more harmless than not, and Maud, who holds the greatest leverage, becomes his greatest ally. One boozy night Jonathan finds himself snookering around with her, naked, on the living-room floor. Their allegiance cemented in lust, Maud and Jonathan's silence about the past, at first an attempt to ease Hazel back into life, becomes an active betrayal. Ironically, it never occurs to Jonathan that this behavior is exactly what made this second chance necessary.
With perfect stage direction, Livesy brings in a host of lovable peripheral figures--a roofer, an actress, and a flamboyantly gay wig designer, all of whom long for their own second chances in life--to burst Jonathan's protective bubble. There's Freddie Adams, a 35-year-old sensitive Stanford grad from Cincinnati, who comes to fix Jonathan's leaky roof and meets Hazel. Right away, he senses something wrong. He begins asking questions, and he crosses paths with Charlotte, a wannabe actress who reads to Hazel in the afternoons. Although The Missing World skips from one character to the next faster than a daytime soap, Livesy inhabits each viewpoint entirely. So engrossing do their dramas become that it's easy to read the book in one sitting. As this chilling story careens to a dramatic finish, Livesy leaves no doubt that we needn't induce a coma to get our second chances--they come every day. We need only recognize them.
Pilgrim, the eponymous hero of Timothy Findley's latest novel, is growing tired of his second chances in life. On April 15, 1912 he makes an attempt at suicide--not his first. Five hours later, after his butler Forster has found him hanging heavily from a tree, Pilgrim's stubborn heart begins to beat again. Shortly thereafter, Pilgrim is whisked to the Burgholzi Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, where he is beset by curious psychologists. Catatonic and determined to find a quick way out of this world, he is discovered by Carl Jung, who is in the midst of developing his idea of the collective unconscious. After another botched suicide attempt, Pilgrim finally begins to speak through the words of his journals, which his friend and guardian angel, Lady Sybil Quartermaine, gives to Jung to help him crack the subject.
If the journals are to be believed, Pilgrim is a 4,000-year-old soul who now occupies the body of a wealthy art historian. Recorded in letters and diary entries, Pilgrim's journal recounts the exploits of those four millennia: an audience with Henry James, meeting the woman who would become Mona Lisa, and chatting with a dying Oscar Wilde before Rodin's "Gates of Hell." The weight of all he has seen and done--from Hector's death in the Trojan War to a woman's stoning--make Pilgrim weary. All he wants is deliverance. But he's a useful subject, a channel for Jung's research. For as Jung delves closer to the deepest vein of Pilgrim's identity, he begins to solidify his nebulous ideas: "Could it not be," he muses, "that the individual's nature--which is unique--also reflects and repeats to whatever degree the nature and the experience of its ancestors? The whole race?"
History is Findley's well, and in this big, admirably adventurous book he taps into the juicy humanity of the stuff. Jung emerges as a feverishly sexual, single-minded man who is supported by his loving wife Emma. Wilde and James stir to life in their cameos, as do Jung's lesser-known colleagues. But the most remarkable figure here is Pilgrim himself. With each successive rebirth he has gone through life's wringer, approaching and recording what he sees with skepticism and folly each time around. It is an existence few of us, one thinks, could so nobly endure.
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