‘She opened her eyes slowly, not out of pain or the fear of pain, but out of a curious sort of trepidation. She knew without thinking, without calculating, the way that she knew her name and she knew that ice was cold, that she had died.’Alyson Rudd, The First Time Lauren Pailing Died
The First Time Lauren Pailing Died was not just a book for me. It was an obsession. I could not put it down.
It’s a tricky one to sum up. It could almost be a coming of age story, but it is relentlessly disrupted by a slippery timeline and broken memories. The story moves between alternative universes, but it is not quite supernatural, as through the existence of these different but equally true universes, it asks the most human of questions: “what if?”
At its heart Lauren Pailing is a story about loss and grief; the empty spaces left by the people we lose or in some cases, never had the chance to know.
Our title character, Lauren, is a young girl growing up in a Cheshire cul-de-sac when she dies in a terrible car accident, sending her parents into devastating grief.
She also lives… goes to Art College, falls in love and moves to London.
When she falls victim to another tragedy, she must adapt to a new life all over again. Her life won’t be how she left it and the people she loves will be different too.
Yes, alternative versions of reality have been done before. I instantly thought of Versions of Us by Lauren Barnett when I read the synopsis, and a friend of mine said it sounded like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (Note to self, add Life After Life to my TBR list). But it is the main character Lauren that makes this book unique. There is something other worldly about her. She is constantly disturbed and haunted by glimpses into her other lives through beams of light that are only visible to her. She is a spectator to her own life; sometimes from within and sometimes without. She is viewed as an odd child, always staring off into “nothing”. When she wakes up in a new life, she is painfully aware of what is lost. Aching, irretrievable nostalgia is the emotional core of this novel.
The relationships are also important. The fate of her family and friends pivot on Lauren’s existence, and each character goes through a different arc in each version of reality. Lauren’s relationships with them changes as a result. Love and how she loves evolves in each life. She loves her husband in one life; and someone else in another. She is close with her parents; but can’t stop missing her “other” mother. The one she remembers before the car accident.
As a child, she is adaptable. She quietly accepts that things have changed and goes on – a tale of childhood repression. But going through it again as an adult, she struggles to reconcile her former lives. How can you commit to a whole self, when memories from a former life make you feel like this one does not belong to you?
She is between worlds – all conflicting and all true – where she is an only child; a sister; an artist; a mother. Her identity is fractured, and it is Lauren’s awareness of the fact that makes this book such a unique and captivating read.
I kept turning the page, wondering when we will learn why Lauren can see and remember alternative realities. The answer never really comes, but I wasn’t disappointed. The book does not set out to be a science-fiction to marvel at a fantastical girl. Instead, Lauren and her alternative lives are used as a device to confront questions of memory and how they can make or break a self.
There is strangely one constant in each of Lauren’s lives however: the disappearance of Peter Stanning. It seemed odd that Peter is not what you would call an important relationship in Lauren’s life. He is her dad’s colleague. I spent a lot of time thinking this character over and why even though everything else changes, his fate never does. It’s an interesting parallel with Lauren’s predicament. In every universe, Peter mysteriously disappears. His family are left wondering what happened to him and they all have their theories.
In a way, Lauren is a missing person too: lost from one life and found in another. We are given multiple versions of how she went missing and where she went. Sometimes to situations that her parents might have imagined for her had things been different. Just like the many theories that exist around Peter’s disappearance.
The stories of the dead and the missing are intertwined.
Each of Lauren’s deaths are untimely and unfair. She is young, intelligent and full of potential. And her family are left asking the questions that the grieving always ask. Had she lived… what choices would she have made? What would she have achieved? Where would she have lived? Who would she have loved?
The saddest part about this book, is that the people left behind asking these questions will never know the answers. While Lauren lives on in another world, maybe knowing too much.