The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke

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205005

 

Paperback, 280 pages

Published: November 11, 2002 by Harvest Books (1st published January 1, 2002)

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They’re in the girls’ room when they hear the first dot-dot-dot of semi-automatic gunfire. It sounds phony and far away, and they keep doing what they’re doing — brushing their hair, looking at their reflections in the mirror…

Seventeen-year-old Diana and Maureen are best friends — beautiful, radiant and full of life. Maureen is devoutly religious. Diana is rebellious and sexually adventurous. They’re both smart, funny, and compassionate. As the story opens, they are sharing an ordinary moment in the school bathroom. Then a disturbed fellow student bursts in and points a gun at each of them in turn, asking “Which of you girls should I kill?”

Then we flash forward 23 years. Diana is 40 years old, still beautiful and married to a philosophy professor who wrestles with questions about good and evil and the nature of the human conscience. They have a lovely, healthy eight-year-old daughter, Emma, a house, and a garden. Yet even as Diana reflects on her perfect life, her world seems to become more and more fragile.

The narrative fluidly slides back and forth between 40-year-old Diana’s life and her life as a teenager. In her adult life, it is springtime, and the season is described with breathtakingly beautiful imagery that illuminates both natural beauty, with the blooming of new life, and the scent of decay. This creates a mood that reflects many of the novel’s themes: the urgency of life in the face of death, the contrast between good and evil, and the fragility of one’s existence. There is also a sense of reality being partly created through one’s perceptions. For example, the adult Diana suddenly realizes she can’t remember how long it’s been since she saw birds. When the thought occurs to her, birds suddenly return to the world, and she is surrounded by the sight and sound of them.

This is a gorgeous novel, both a story and a glimpse at Diana’s dreamlike inner world. Laura Kasischke is a poet, and this shines through clearly in her elegant, imaginative prose. The book explores the metamorphosis from adolescence to midlife. It also asks some thought-provoking questions. For example, how much of our lives are made up of actual events and how much is woven from our thoughts and perceptions? How much of a person’s identity is based on the person she will become? This intricate web of ideas is part of what makes this book, for me, unforgettable.

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This novel was adapted into a film directed by Vadim Perelman. The book was spun, almost in a stream-of-consciousness style, from Diana’s sometimes dreamlike experiences, thoughts, and memories, so it must have been difficult to adapt to the screen. Although, inevitably, it lacked much of the richness of the novel, I did become absorbed in this movie. I especially enjoyed the excellent performances by Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Eva Amurri.

The film’s creators tried to capture some of the novel’s imagery and symbolism through vibrant images, and the cinematography is gorgeous. For instance, we often see vivid pictures of birds on the screen, and birds are woven into the dialogue. The adolescent Diana’s science teacher mentions the Bernoulli Principle, explaining how birds achieve flight, and compares the rather troubled, rebellious Diana to a bird who has flown off course. The opening frames are filled with beautiful images of flowers blooming and decaying, and flowers appear throughout the movie, as they do in the book. These images, highlighting the tangled themes of life, death, and the fragility of our existence and our sense of reality, accurately reflect the novel.

I highly recommend this movie, though it is a bit confusing — it’s even more ambiguous than the book, which had me scratching my head more than once. This is an especially good pick if you enjoy extravagant cinematography and complex dramas.

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