Past life by William Lane

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Anna is a high school student brought up by her adoptive mother Sophie, in Sydney, and her past is unknown. Sophie is Russian, she endeavours to teach Anna about the great Russian writers of her home country, but Anna is drawn more to art, photography in particular, and she becomes intrigued with magnifying images, and photographing changes with time. Somehow images recall lost memories. Gradually she tries to work out the past: the lives of her birth mother Julia, Friedrich the writer, and Sophie.

Many times in this book, one character will recall another, past lives are intermingled with present, and secrets eventually reveal the connections. There is a poem that Friedrich writes, with the question ‘How will you know me?’ It is a question the novel explores. The lives of Friedrich, Julia and Sophie are woven together during the years leading to the German invasion of the Soviet Union during the second World War, a time where people became separated and divided from one another.

The theme is picked up again in the second part of the book, as school student Robin and his childhood friend Iris, come to know Anna, now in her late thirties. There are complexities in their relationship as well. The past haunts the present, and patterns seem to continually repeat themselves. It’s like the art book that Robin peruses, discovering faces he knows in history’s faces. Anna comments, ‘Everything is a variation of some essential idea . . .  the same forms get repeated in different dimensions and perspectives and scale.’ This is the central premise of the book; how the traumas of the past impact the present and old loves are embodied in present loves.

It’s an absorbing story, an intriguing twist of relationships, and one that would reward re-reading and reflection.

Themes: Identity, Past lives, Memories, Relationships, German invasion of the Soviet Union, Eastern Front (WWII).

Helen Eddy