Kate Atkinson’s Life after life is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

To quote the back cover:

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

That baby is Ursula Todd. She dies at birth, strangled by her umbilical cord. But then the story starts over again, and this time the doctor makes it in time despite the snowstorm, and she survives.

At the age of four, at a beach in Cornwall, she and her sister are swept out to sea. No – an amateur painter notices the girls struggling in the water and carries them safely to the shore.

Again and again, Ursula starts over and avoids the death that ended her previous attempt.

Ursula herself gradually becomes vaguely aware that her life is repeating. She sometimes knows what is about to happen, and gets a sense of foreboding when she approaches a pivotal point in her life. Sometimes this helps her avert the tragedy; sometimes not.

The turnings and returnings may sound repetitive, but I would rather describe them as rhythmic, even mesmerising. Each time Ursula relives an event, we learn something new about it. Perhaps we see it from another character’s viewpoint, or maybe simply from a different angle. Our view of the web of Ursulas life/lives becomes richer and denser with each turning of the wheel.

There are an awful lot of ways for a girl to die. Accidents. Influenza. (That one took several attempts to get past.) An abusive husband. The world war.

The war and the endless bombing of London take up a major chunk of the book. According to the author, the book was triggered by her thoughts the war that she just missed. It is a book of “bearing witness to the past”.

But to me it is also about the vulnerability of life, and the fear and pain of losing our loved ones. Ursula’s mother loses not just her, over and over, but sometimes also her brothers and sisters. Ursula herself sometimes starts over not for her own sake, but for that of others.

With these premises, the book could be a really depressing read. But there is so much warmth and love in Ursulas lives, and there is always that persistent hope that next time will be better.

Kate Atkinson is an incredibly skilled writer. I feel tempted to pile up all sorts of praise here. Beautiful, rich, vibrant… This is a wonderful book, one of the best I’ve read.

Seaside beach at Ljusterö near Stockholm.

Estonia is not that far from Stockholm and yet there are some differences that I just cannot help but notice.

Estonia has storks. There are stork nests on chimneys and utility poles, and storks striding around in fields and roadside meadows. It is pretty cool to see such large non-human creatures, so close to us. In Sweden there are none.

Same with swallows. When Ingrid went riding here in Tartu, the stable was full of swallows flying in and out, and their nests under the ceiling were more than I could count. In our stable in Stockholm there are sparrows instead.

The supermarkets in Estonia stock a much wider variety of processed food of all kinds. Fifteen varieties of ready-made potato salad. Pastries with savoury fillings of all kinds. Dozens of flavours of yoghurt, with actual variation, whereas Swedish supermarkets have maybe six and they’re all almost the same. (The supermarkets in London also had lots of flavours – I wonder what keeps Swedish producers from widening and renewing their range.)

Estonian cyclists do not wear helmets and generally seem to harbour a death wish. Cyclists cross the road diagonally without even looking over their shoulder; they cycle on narrow sidewalks without slowing when meeting pedestrians. The most extreme example was two guys on the same bike, one cycling and the other one standing on the rack. Neither was wearing a helmet. They were in the middle of the road, veering a bit erratically, because the one in the front was steering with one hand and using the other to hold his mobile phone.

Estonian women all make an effort to dress stylishly, whereas Swedish women are more likely to take the jeans-and-top approach. Estonian men all wear single-colour t-shirts and sports shorts, and look as if they were on their way to mow the lawn or possibly attend a beach barbecue.

Finally, finally, after uncounted months of no progress, Adrian is now nappy free. He totally skipped the potty stage, and the accident-prone trying and practising stage, and went from nappies to full toilet use pretty much overnight.

He rarely has any accidents, not even at night. It’s as if a switch had been thrown. I guess there was some psychological threshold or resistance that needed to be conquered.

At home he often manages his toilet visits independently, without any help. He has a little step stool to help him, and a child-sized toilet seat ring. Outside the home the toilets are tall and the seats large, so he needs help getting up and down.

When we’re out and about, he prefers peeing in bushes to going to the toilet. One of the main reasons is his sensitivity to noise, especially rumbling, roaring sounds. He cannot stand the noise of hand dryers, and the Dyson Airblade is by far the worst. He is so distressed by them that he cannot think of anything except escaping the noise. I can sympathise with him. The Airblade is awfully noisy, and while I don’t quite feel the need to flee, I try to keep my distance and won’t normally use them.

To get away from the noise, we use the separate family/disabled toilet instead of the main ones whenever possible. Sometimes I carry a pair of kid-sized ear protectors with me for him. Those are also good for other kinds of noisy situations, such as roadside picnic areas, or the building works going on in our street in Tartu. I don’t know what they’re doing – it sounds like a jackhammer but I’ve never stopped to look; we all hurry past as fast as we can.

When we went shopping for underwear, Adrian picked a bunch with monsters on them, and a set of day-of-week briefs. He’s not too picky about wearing them on the right day; instead he picks a pair, puts them on, and then asks what day he’s wearing.

(Face painting by Ingrid)

Adrian is interested in numbers, sizes, measurements, metres and kilograms. He asks how large things are, or how many meters of potatoes we bought and then guesses “fifty meters! no, six!”

He has become quite aware of his age, too. He knows that he is three, almost four, and that Ingrid is several years older. He knows his birthday is in autumn, which comes after summer, when the leaves turn yellow. He wants to be six so he can go to school like Ingrid, and watch big kid movies.

He likes joining in the games we play, and with some coaching and guidance manages some of them pretty well. We’ve played dominoes, “Försvunna diamanten” and Go fish.

He has his own score in “yellow car”, which by the way has mutated into “orange car” now because there were way too many yellow cars in the streets of Stockholm. Occasionally he notices Ingrid and me discussing our scores and asks what his score is. Then he shouts out “red car” or “black truck” or something and gets a point for that. Meanwhile, Ingrid has realised that I have no chance of catching up with her, but she wants the score to be more even to make the game more exciting for her. I now get two points for each car, and sometimes she points out orange cars for me to claim.

He still has his cow milk protein intolerance. One day when we were all having ice cream and he wasn’t happy with his, he asked to try ours. What the heck, we thought, let’s see what happens, and he got small spoonfuls from each of us. What happened was a night of constant waking because of nightmares, until four in the morning. Won’t be trying that again for some while.

Favourite food: French fries. Raspberries. Porridge. Potatoes. Broccoli and cauliflower.

Favourite story: Three little pigs.

Favourite movie: Despicable Me, 1 and 2.

Favourite YouTube clips: people demonstrating play-dough play sets.

Favourite toy: Lego.

On our way from Tallinn to Tartu the day before yesterday, the alternator belt in our car broke. I am completely uninterested and thus clueless about automotive technology, so I could not diagnose the problem and just hoped that it was a battery problem (which we’ve had before) and that the car would keep running for the 30 km we had left to our accommodation in Tartu.

It almost did. When we were almost there, as I was pulling away in first gear after stopping at a crossroads, the engine stalled and wouldn’t start again. I waved our jumper cables at passing cars; the first one passed by but the second one stopped and the friendly driver got us going again.

At this point it was pretty obvious that the car was really teetering on the edge. I had lost all the niceties that we take for granted in modern cars, including power steering and speedometer functionality. Luckily there were no more traffic lights and no more driving at low speed, and the car got us all the way “home” and didn’t die until I was halfway through parking it.

It actually felt kind of cool to drive this way, old school, but parking without power steering was not easy. Air conditioning is a pretty nice thing, too. The whole incident gave me a new appreciation for all the mod cons we have in our car. At 16 years it is far from new so I wonder what it might be like to drive a really modern car.

I wish I could say that this also made me realize the value of some basic knowledge of troubleshooting engine problems. It didn’t. It did make me realize the value of (1) having jumper cables in the car, and (2) friendly strangers and well-connected acquaintances.

When we arrived the landlady came out to meet us, and some guy who was with her immediately volunteered to look under the hood. He immediately diagnosed the problem and then proceeded to call “a guy I know” who came by with a trailer and took the car away. We got it back the next day with a new alternator belt and a freshly charged battery. And that was that, problem solved.

The kids and I are halfway through our summer holidays. Mostly we’re on our own because Eric has had work to do still. Being with Ingrid all day, every day, has let me see her from some new angles – or rather, reminded me of angles that have been there all the time but that I haven’t noticed as much during the school year.

She really, really hates waiting and is totally unable to amuse herself without external help. After a very late supper I tell the kids it’s time to go to bed. Ingrid brushes her teeth and gets out of her clothes. And then, do you think she goes to her bedroom? No – she sits in the sofa and reads, because she sees that I’m still brushing Adrian’s teeth, and she cannot imagine sitting in the bedroom and doing nothing for those two minutes it will take us.

Her two go-to solution is reading. As long as we’re at home, there are always Kalle Anka pocket issues lying around and she will grab one as soon as there is even a minute of waiting. If the waiting time is longer, she likes to add snacking to the reading.

I’m all for reading. I like reading, and I like that she likes reading. But it’s definitely becoming a crutch for her. It would feel totally wrong to forbid reading but somehow at some point she needs to exercise her atrophied imagination…

She is loves entertainment, activity and especially social activity of all kinds. Belonging to a group and being with other kids is very important to her.

Some of her friends at school had started playing “Winx Club”, after the animated series, and Ingrid then started watching the series so she could better join in at the game. Now I think she’s trying to work her way through all the seasons. She’s been watching Winx Club a lot.

She’s particularly interested in the costumes: she browsed through a Winx Club wiki to look at all the characters’ outfits, and wants me to make a Tecna costume for her.

Her other favourite entertainment right now is Dragon City, an iPad game where you feed and breed dragons. It’s become a social family activity: almost every morning we sit together for a while and feed our dragons, and ooh and aah over each other’s eggs, and watch the dragons combat.

She got a pair of inline skates at the beginning of the summer. She’s been practicing but finding it hard. The streets around our home are hilly and the surface is often uneven – not so easy for a novice skater.

For her own money she generally buys plush animals. The most recent one was an owl. Before that we ordered a large plush horse for her from an online store. From a car boot sale she bought a plush dog with accessories, and a rainbow-coloured large plush snake. She likes taking one or two of them with her when we travel somewhere, and often has one of them in her bed at night. But after a short while she becomes bored with them, puts them away and buys a new one. I don’t know how many dozens of animals she has now.

Her favourite summer activity (after camping) is swimming. She’s one of those kids who can dive into cold lake water and tell me that it’s not cold at all! Come in! It’s great!

The snorkel and mask and goggles are the best things we ever bought for her. She’s a strong swimmer as long as she doesn’t have to think about breathing, so the mask and snorkel allow her to swim around without having to worry much about that.

At swim school they mostly focus on front crawl and backstroke, both of which make it hard for her to see where she’s going. So when we go in deep water together, she ends up doing an awkward dog paddle/breaststroke combo.

She chose a very colourful bikini for this summer, in line with her usual fashion choices (the more colours, the better) but felt too naked in it. She doesn’t think twice about lolling around in her underwear at home, but didn’t feel good in the bikini at the local pool. So we bought another turquoise tankini, like last year.

Favourite part of travelling to Estonia: just about everything. She enjoyed the ferry trip, the dinner buffet on the ferry, the flat we’re staying in (same as last year), the planning, even the packing. She pretty much did her own packing this year, with the help of my all-purpose packing list and just a few hints, although I did help her fold her clothes so they’d fit in the suitcase.

Favourite ice cream flavours: melon, mint (polka), pear, elderflower.

Ingrid’s top wish for this summer was to go camping. She had already slept in a tent that we put up in the garden and obviously really liked something about that experience, so now we did it for real.

Well… sort of. Since it’s Adrian’s first time and Ingrid’s second (and the first was so long ago that she doesn’t even remember it), we went for a very civilised camping experience rather than anything resembling real wilderness. We camped at a nature park in Ängsjö, just outside Stockholm. One of its major benefits is that there’s stuff for the kids to do: the nature park has a beach, a wooden fort and an adventure trail, etc.

It actually turned out even more civilised than I’d planned for, almost park-like in places. We’d been there with Ingrid’s scout group once, last autumn, but now in summer there was a nice café, the grass had been mown, etc. It wasn’t exactly what I normally picture when I think of camping, but nobody complained about the opportunity to eat cake at the café.

Ingrid got her wish: we did sleep in a tent. We also cooked dinner in foil packets over coals in a fire pit, and breakfast on an alcohol stove, and washed up in the lake. During the day went swimming in the lake several times, and rented a boat.

I hadn’t been out in a rowboat for many years. I was surprised at what an incredibly efficient means of transport this is: Ingrid rowed us all for a good bit without any major effort. It really made me understand how important shipping and good waterways must have been in earlier times.

I realised yet again that my body really isn’t made for sleeping on hard ground: I was so stiff and sore in the morning. Cramming four people in a tent made for three adults didn’t help. I like having lots of space when I sleep.

Ingrid, diving in

Adrian enjoyed the wet sand


I do. I stare at women’s legs. You see, I’ve become really curious about leg shaving.

I refuse to shave my legs. I hate it in so many ways that I don’t even want to count them all. I am lucky to be married to a man who isn’t bothered by leg hair, and therefore I let it grow. I haven’t shaved my legs since university, I believe.

Society in general doesn’t share my views, I know, so I keep my deviance to myself. (Although now that I think about it, isn’t it really bizarre that something so natural can be so provocative…) I cover up at work and wear trousers or tights or leggings. But now I’m on vacation and it’s hot, and I care very little about the opinion of strangers, so I walk around unashamedly baring my hairy legs.

Meanwhile, I surreptitiously look at other women’s summer legs. Trains, train stations and playgrounds in particular are full of more or less immobile easily observable legs.

And I am truly surprised to see that every single pair of legs is shaved. I have not seen a single hairy shin. Young legs and old legs; skinny, flabby, athletic and plump legs; legs in trendy shoes, strappy sandals or worn-out sneakers. All of them shaved. Possibly I’ve missed some with invisible downy hair but those wouldn’t really count anyway.

Well, all except Lady Dahmer’s legs, I guess, but I haven’t seen those first hand.

All these years I’ve believed that leg shaving fell somewhere around “mascara” and “nice hairdo” on the primping scale: things most women spend time on because it makes them look prettier, but really optional. That seems to have been a misapprehension. Leg shaving appears to be viewed more like showering or brushing your hair: basic hygienic procedures that you just have to do if they want to fit into normal society.

So leg hair is somehow unhygienic. But only on women; men’s hair is not. I guess men just have a different kind of hair: teflon-coated and self-cleaning.

Our summer vacation started on Tuesday. We’ve been to the movies to see Alfons, gone shopping for underpants for Adrian and inline skates for Ingrid. Today we went to Old Town to visit the Royal Armoury and the Royal Coin Cabinet.

Old Town is a sight in and of itself. It may feel over-touristy and “been there, done that” to me but it was pretty interesting for the kids. We pass through one edge of it on our way to our Estonian playgroup every other Sunday but haven’t really visited the rest of it. “Oh look, an alleyway! Can we go inside?” and lots of fun little shop windows and the royal castle and all.

Ingrid was just the right age for a visit to the Royal Armoury, with all the dresses and swords and suits of armour (and for horses, too!) – and especially the child-sized versions. She liked the stories of kings dying in battle and being shot to death at masquerade balls, and royal weddings, and so on. We also talked about how modern-day princesses might live, and that it’s not quite like in the fairy tales any more.

There’s also a dress-up area for the kids which both Ingrid and Adrian enjoyed. Ingrid was a warrior princess, so Adrian wanted to be one, too.

I did not dress up but I did try out the replica Iron Throne that they had in the lobby. The current temporary exhibition is titled Maktspel (Power game) and explores themes of power, war and love in 16th century Europe in fact and fiction. On display are costumes from A Game of Thrones and two movies about Queen Elizabeth I, as well as actual clothing and armour that belonged to Sweden’s king Eric XIV who was contemporary with Elizabeth.