What happens to us when we die? Is that the end, the final curtain? Or does some essential part of us survive? Do our souls, in other words, live on? Of course they bloody don’t, is Mary Roach’s firm conviction at the start of this sassy, egocentric exploration of the ‘afterlife’ – which takes us on a Cook’s tour of mankind’s struggle to believe in some kind of life after death, with diversions including a brief history of preformationism (the idea that each sperm contains a tiny, fully formed human being), a great deal of ectoplasm (the yucky stuff that dribbles from the mouth, nostrils, and occasionally other parts of mediums when they go into a trance), and an account of the bizarre experiment that was conducted in 1901 to discover the weight of the soul (twenty-one grams, if you’re interested).
The book has many highlights. There’s a great throwaway line, for example, in the author’s discussion of the theory of maternal impressions: the belief that a person’s physical irregularities can be traced back to a particular fright suffered by the mother during pregnancy. This, Roach says, was put forward as