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June 2024 book review

Meet Me in Another Life, by Catriona Silvey


Warning, spoilers!
I drank this book down in a day. 
Books and films don't really make me cry. I've sat guiltily dried-eyed next to tearful friends in the cinema (two different friends for 'Barbie'), or been handed a book and told it will break my heart, which has a good old twang at the strings but fails to produce a sniffle. Through experience I've learned that my tear-jerk barrier is just set higher. I don't say this because I'm an ice-queen, but to emphasise that I don't cry at books
Catriona Silvey's book, 'Meet Me in Another Life', had me sobbing.
The premise is quite simple. Girl meets boy. Girl and boy feel a connection, a kinship. Tragedy strikes. Then girl meets boy again. And again. And again. Their relationship takes a different dynamic each life - of teacher and pupil, sister and brother, parent and adoptive child, friends, lovers, confidants - but every time they meet in the same city of Cologne, each time searching for something more. As the number of their cosmically entwined lives builds and memories begin to bleed between them, they become desperate to discover the meaning of it all and uncover what they are to each other.

Thora is a scientist at heart, strong-willed, data-driven, results-focused. Santi is more of a dreamer, God-aware and looking for higher meaning. One of the best parts of the book is watching these staunch characteristics become drenched by each other's outlook and their repeated lives, and begin to disintegrate, surfacing ferally strong in some lives and being drowned in others. It's a brilliant exploration of character, asking whether there is such a thing as a core personality or if it depends entirely on the circumstances. Both share a trait of wanting to know the answer to the phenomenon they're living through, rather than just enjoying the blessing of a hundred lives, and this is the bridge that creates a common dialogue between them, both desperate to understand and be understood by the other. 
MAJOR SPOILER (spoilers end at END SPOILER): I'm going to toot my own horn and say I guessed the twist (I did not predict the level of wounding my heart would endure, however). The simple reason is that I had just listened to episode 6, 'A Dreamless Sleep', of the 'Sayer' podcast. In the episode, an AI pilot sadistically informs the passenger in hypersleep that they will be awake until the spaceship reaches its destination, but in the meantime every minute the passenger feels passing will in reality be a nanosecond. By the time the ship docks, the passenger will have experienced over three hundred years, banging around in their own skull. It's the same concept here, except Cologne is an artificial sandbox for two copilots in hypersleep, on their way to a new planet. 
The revelation would run the risk of being almost campy, eye-roll-worthy ('it was all a simulation!'), but not in the hands of such a character-driven story which is less about the result as the meaning.The idea of a mind being kept occupied and even trained during hypersleep is intriguing, and what takes the book to next level is the sheer humanity of it. Needing to spend lives with your co-pilot so you can be exactly what the other needs when isolated together on an alien planet. Having 'echoes' of loved ones implanted into the simulation to remind you why you're venturing into the unknown of space in the first place. The breadcrumbs through the first two thirds of the book - their shared love of astronomy, the name of the pub they both like (Der Zentaur, while the name of the star they're flying towards is Proxima Centauri), the flash of their own faces in the reflection of their sleep pods between lives, etc - were artfully scattered. On a first reading they seem to be sweet quirks of the characters, charming coincidences, or odd but explicable recurrences, but in hindsight their trail is as bright as the constellations the astronauts are passing through. 
I liked that the two were not always romantically entwined. The hook quote from the front of my  edition says (and these are so often terrible) that this is not a love story, but a story about love, and it's remarkably apt. The central message is simple and manages not to be preaching: trying to understand another person - completely, holistically - is like trying to understand the universe; futile, but there is no endeavour so important as the act of trying.
I have no idea why this book isn't rolling in five star reviews on Goodreads. It is a perfect book, in the dictionary definition of the word: pure, total, lacking in nothing. It has heart, it has spark, it has originality, and it has beautiful prose. On occasion the philosophising felt a little repetitive, the same arguments rehashed across multiple lives, but otherwise there is no area of this book that lets it down.
Plus, to top it all off, I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a book event and she is delightful in person as well.  


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