English writer Kate Atkinson's 2013 book Life After Life is one of the most dazzling novels I've read in the last decade, a virtuoso performance on every level — plot, character, language, structure and more.
Her new novel, A God in Ruins, is not exactly a sequel to Life After Life; she calls it a "companion piece" in her excellent author's note. But whatever you call the book, it's another rich and enthralling read.
Life After Life contained its own sequels, in a way. Its protagonist, a British woman named Ursula Todd, is born and reborn dozens of times, in a kind of Groundhog Day version of reincarnation. Each lifetime is different, sometimes drastically, sometimes just a bit. In most of them she enjoys an idyllic childhood in a country house called Fox Corner and then lives through the Blitz in London and loses loved ones in World War II, the historical event at the core of both of these books.
A God in Ruins focuses on Ursula's brother Teddy, the beloved golden boy among his five siblings. In the previous book, Teddy's life, too, had different versions because of his connection to his sister. This time he gets a life that is different from all of those and fully fleshed out, a portrait that ranges from boyhood to deep old age, wheeling always, again, around the war, when Teddy served as an RAF bomber pilot.
Teddy may get just one lifetime, but Atkinson does not deliver it in linear, chronological fashion. The novel moves freely — sometimes from one sentence to the next — across almost a century and four generations of the Todd family, from Teddy's parents, stalwart Hugh and dramatic Sylvie, to his grandchildren, the hapless boy Sunny and Bertie, the sweetly sensible girl whom Teddy considers "his legacy, his message to the world."
Sunny and Bertie's mother is Viola, the only child of Teddy and his wife, the also sweetly sensible Nancy. Sweetness and good sense skipped a generation with Viola, though. She grows from glum girlhood to a hilariously described phase as a commune-dwelling hippie, during which she accidentally becomes a morosely negligent mum: "She drew heavily on the cigarette and then, in a touching display of maternal responsibility, lifted her chin so that the smoke blew over her children's heads." She doesn't get any sweeter with age; when, decades later, Teddy lies dying in a nursing home, she thinks, "Her father must miss having fresh air; he had always been so into the outdoors. He loved nature. She felt a sudden spark of sympathy for him and stamped on it."
Viola's antipathy for her father is puzzling given that he is, in manhood as in boyhood, beloved by everyone else. Its roots are not the book's only mystery; we know from early on that Nancy dies during Viola's childhood, but how and why are revealed slowly. Some things about Nancy are never spelled out, like her work during the war, which she can't even tell Teddy about, although Atkinson gives us a sly hint: Her husband's war experience, which he won't talk about, "was the one enigma that she would never decode."
Atkinson does a skillful job of interweaving history and fiction. Even more impressively, she combines brilliantly rendered traditional narrative and warmly believable characters with a postmodern sense of the nature of fiction, the story aware of itself as story. (Just wait for her ending flourish.)
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A God in Ruins contrasts sections about Teddy's family life, which are filled with quotidian joys and affections, with those about the hellish war. Atkinson's descriptions of the latter are almost unbearably powerful and vivid, like this disastrous bombing run: "On their port beam an aircraft on fire from aft to stern flew by, straight and level but upside down. Teddy saw a Lancaster erupt in sheets of white flame and drop on to a Halifax below it. Both went cartwheeling down to earth together, gigantic pinwheels of fire. Teddy could see what must be a Pathfinder spooling down to earth, its red and green marker flares exploding prettily as it hit the ground. He had never been a witness to this much carnage. Aircraft went down in the distance usually, stars flaring and dying. Crews simply disappeared, they weren't there the next morning for their bacon and eggs, you didn't give too much thought to how they disappeared. The horror and terror of those last moments was hidden. Now they were inescapable."
That paragraph, in a way, embodies what Atkinson does in this novel: War and death, for most of us, are indeed hidden, but she gives us the fliers not just as stars flaring and dying, but as men chowing down on their bacon and eggs. She gives us Teddy's quiet heroism that keeps his crew alive in terrible peril, his domestic happiness and losses, and his death — and shows us how each one is inescapably part of the others. However many times you live it, life is beautiful, life is heartbreaking, and the two are inseparable.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.