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How to escape a groundhog-esque life

By Anastasia Baraeva
7 min read

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of having five different professions and working in five different places during the week. I thought it would be a great way to prevent boredom. But Stuart Turton did me one better and went as far as to suggest the idea of living eight days in different bodies. So ingenious was this idea that I was immediately hooked. 

I’d have never heard of the author, if I hadn’t bumped into a quest based on the book. The quest sounded intriguing to me because, for a moment, I was supposed to turn into a detective and carry out an investigation. Without thinking twice, I set off on a peculiar journey to Blackheath, England. 

a large brick building with a tall tower
Photo by Sophie Grieve-Williams on Unsplash

There is a crumbling castle, where the same things happen night after night: at a party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle is killed. And the protagonist, Aiden Bishop, wakes up in a body of a different host each morning to see the play from a different angle and investigate the murder.  But there is someone who is desperate to stop him unraveling the mystery with each trip down someone else’s memory lane. To solve the murder, Aiden has to experience every emotion there is, from being a stranger to himself to an appreciation for what he is not, let go of it, and find out who he is in actuality.In fact, the story reflects the principles of the matrix we live in, by which I mean groundhog day many people want to escape from. Things and events seem to be the same day after day because, caught up in our dreams for a new life or success, we live for the future while the present passes by. In the pursuit of change, we tend to forget our true selves, and therefore, paradoxically, never change and never escape the matrix.

But Turton suggests a brilliant idea on how to do that – to see events through other people’s eyes. As soon as you start playing this intriguing game, you are given an opportunity to reflect on what is going on again and again to finally connect the dots and begin a new chapter in life. In the book, this process is shown by the idea of having different bodies. And everything would work perfectly, if there was no problem, surprise-surprise, with the physical features each body had. One of them, for example, makes Aiden experience shame, embarrassment, and humiliation because of its age and inability to move. It’s a rare reader who won’t put themselves in the main hero’s shoes, empathizing with him and all elderly people who struggle with different types of disabilities. This is actually a great reminder for those who don’t have perfect relationships with their relatives for this reason to be tolerant and patient. They might not insult you on purpose, but because of the pain or embarrassment they cannot deal with.

Despite the fact that “another possession” feels weightless, like a leaf being blown about by the breeze, Aiden faces the uncontrolled aggressiveness of the body he inhabits. However, Aiden notices an interesting thing that calms his mind: if the bastard smokes, he turns into a relatively normal guy. So, Aiden begins to use the host’s bad habit to his own advantage every time he needs to think about something or weigh up a situation. This scene made me think about the need for a total acceptance of who we are, especially when we blame ourselves for being aggressive with ourselves and others. When I, for example, start blaming myself for something like, “Oh, I could have done it in a different way..”, my friend usually advocates for me, “Nastya, if you could have done that differently, believe me, you would have done it”. Of course, I don’t justify aggressive behavior, but a total acceptance of life in all its opposite manifestations and looking for things that can neutralize the negative is what I am saying.

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Photo by Christophe Hautier on Unsplash

And the way Aiden does it is brilliant. By the middle of the story, it is almost commonplace for Bishop to be hopping from one body to another, but there is a wonderful change in his attitude to it – instead of, “ugh, how disgusting this body is”, it’s now more like, “oh, let’s see what talents it has”. During his sojourn in the old host’s body, for instance, Aiden notices that he inhabits a great mind. So, he begins to use it to solve the riddle. This got me thinking about pointless disappointment and mind games that could all have been avoided were we more attentive to our talents and skills we are gifted along with the so-called negative aspects!

Every body, as they say, is hard-wired for a particular life experience. We are all given a certain set of talents and abilities that are meant to help us fulfill our purpose in life. And here, the most difficult task is to notice your talents, and then learn to use them to your advantage. Come to think of it, I am happy inhabiting my body because it has a pretty flexible mind that gives me the ability to be open-minded to everything new, absorb it, transform it, and perform in my own way. In other words, when I discovered and embraced my curiosity, I was able to enrich my life and give back to the world.

But the danger is that physical features can define our perception of ourselves and life in general. The more hosts Aiden has, the stronger the chorus of their personalities becomes. Every host presses down upon him, their memories of the castle crowd the edges of his mind. “Their weight is almost too much to bear”, admits Aiden. Every time, he has to make an effort to raise his trueself above their thoughts. Here, Aiden’s example reminds us to be cautious about our assumptions and dreams because they may not be truly ours but adopted from others. It might turn out that the character you think you are — who has a prestigious job, has dinner with friends on Sundays, and maybe, dreams of having their own apartment somewhere in Paris — is not true. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And the only way to maintain authenticity, in this case, is to be very attentive to your emotions, feelings, and thoughts.

To do this, Aiden is advised to listen to the voice in his head. When one maid suddenly reminds Aiden’s host of his dead wife and provokes the vortex of memories that gets him sucked into it, Aiden hears the inner voice: “Rebecca wasn’t your wife”. Intuition or gut feelings are equivalent to such a voice in real life. Intuition is a guide that leads you and helps you avoid trouble. Gut feelings, in turn, are physical manifestations of your intuition, which help you navigate life. The human body is a very smart and highly sensitive device. In the decision-making process, for instance, I always pay attention to my feelings and emotions, which are like a smart parking system telling me when to drive and when to stop. And I’ve never scratched my metaphorical car backing out of a tight spot.

person sitting in the driver seat
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

The ability to see the past and the future is one more bonus that those who look through other people’s eyes get. Aiden can predict his future through his future hosts’ behavior and actions. “We are the same man”, replies Aiden to his rival, who doesn’t want him to solve the murder. And this knowledge gives him a chance to win the game by not making the same mistakes. Later, Aiden realizes that all of his rivals are nothing more than figments of his fracturing mind, nothing more than the byproduct of his consciousness. And the most important thing the game is designed for is to collect himself by learning from each host, trusting his gut feelings, and developing critical thinking. “If Rashton and Ravencort have taught me anything, it’s to value my hosts’ talents, rather than lament their limitations,”– Aiden says once.

Limitation is actually an invisible character in the book. It is a trigger for the protagonist’s sufferings: groundhog day, the one place he cannot escape, the same people he interacts with, and the same decisions he makes loop after loop drive him to desperation. He thinks of suicide, but it doesn’t help; he wakes up again and again until he embraces the rules of the game and gets to know that the Blackheath is a sort of rehab clinic. “By locking prisoners inside the murder, we give them a chance to atone for their own crimes by solving somebody else’s.”, one of the heroes explains to Aiden. Some believe that the earth is a prison too, and all people who live here are prisoners who are serving a life sentence and working hard towards redeeming themselves – fixing their mistakes, improving or strengthening their character,  expanding their consciousness, and becoming the best version of themselves. And the only way to escape the matrix, judging by the plot, is to train oneself to respond differently to situations that typically provoke the same impulsive reactions and make different decisions.

But this is not as catastrophic as it sounds because the author gives us a few hints on how to do this. Unless you embrace the rules of the game, you will suffer forever. But, if you become a fully-fledged player, you can take the lead and go beyond it, claim the right to choose whatever scenarios to play, jump from one to another, blend them together, experience different things, and remain free under absolutely any circumstances. As Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” Then life doesn’t seem any more difficult than playing a game or any more painful than a mosquito bite. And this is the reason why I highly recommend this book, as it is a handbook for everyone who is lost or gets stuck in their groundhog life looking for the answers to their questions: what my purpose in life is, what the hell is going on here, and so on.