A Lifetime of Impossible Days is a beautiful and heart-breaking meditation on family trauma, guilt, and growing up that focuses on Willa. We meet fierce eight-year-old Gumboots Willa in 1965, mother-of-two Middle Willa reckoning with her past in 1990, and rebellious and scatty Silver Willa in 2050 where the Willas’ lives intersect in a time slip delivered on the first of June. What truly makes this a memorable and unique read is the use of magical realism in the form of the mysterious box which contains a jar of water and one simple instruction: 'One ocean: plant in the backyard.' This jar opens a time slip to allow the three Willas to coexist together.
The premise of the three Willas meeting in the time slip presents the reader a simple concept to meditate on: what they would say to their past or future self? How would your past self see you? Where do you want to end up in the future? The possibilities are endless and are a rabbit hole for the reader to enter at their own peril. I enjoyed watching the Willas meet and try to reconcile their own sense of self when meeting each other. Childhood family trauma is a much written about topic in fiction and Bird’s use of a single person split into a past, present, and future self adds a different and new form of storytelling. There is reference to physical and sexual abuse of children so be wary if this is a trigger for you, however, the abuse is not particularly explicit and exists more in implication than description. There is also a beautiful lightness at times that seems to balance the darker themes. Within the pages are many Aussie-isms that made me nostalgic at times and giggle at others.
I really enjoyed the different voices of the Willas. From the naively bright and happy Gumboots Willa, full of dreams and hopes and ideas about the future to the jaded, care-heavy Middle Willa trying to raise her boys while struggling with her and her sister’s trauma of the past. I particularly loved the parallel when we meet older Silver Willa, reverting back to joy and spark of a young Willa, leaving behind the cares of adulthood. It can be a little confusing at first keeping the Willas and their timelines straight, however, these multiple time points begin to twine together building towards an insidious climax. This sense of urgency gives the novel pace and I found myself unable to put it down.
Bird has a lot to say on the lingering effects of abuse and the guilt associated with it that can stay long after the abuse has stopped, particularly when there are siblings and other family involved. Middle Willa struggles with feeling helpless and that she ultimately failed to protect her sister who she loves most and her reckoning with this guilt felt honest and relatable. Despite the heavy content this novel has many moments that are vibrant and joyous that keeps the experience palatable and easy to digest. A Lifetime of Impossible Days is a special debut that lingers on in my mind and truly surprised me, a novel I strongly recommend reading, provided you can face the trigger warnings. As a bonus the hard copy is also one of the most beautiful novels I own, filled with gorgeous illustrations scattered throughout the pages. Do yourself a favour and give this one a go.
A Lifetime of Impossible Days
By Tabitha Bird
390 pages. 2019.