“What if the new Kate Atkinson were even better than the last…” reads the front cover of my proof copy of A God in Ruins. Atkinson’s last novel was, of course, Life After Life, so greedily devoured by readers and glowingly reviewed by critics as to be hailed as her tour de force. Not that the English novelist’s work hasn’t been the subject of critical acclaim before. The postmodern structure of her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum won her the prestigious Whitbread award in the U.K. back in 1995. The achievement was mildly marred by some misogynistic grumbling amongst the then London literary establishment that a previously unknown woman writer had pipped Salman’s Rushdie (for The Moor’s Last Sigh) to the post, but bearing in mind Atkinson’s novel quickly made it onto the UK high school syllabus—I studied it myself for A-Level—she clearly had the last laugh.
There followed six novels—Human Croquet; Emotionally Weird; and then the four volumes featuring Jackson Brodie, her fan favorite former police detective-turned-private investigator—before Life After Life appeared in 2013. Writing in the New York Times, Janet Maslin called it the author’s “very best;” the Guardian expressed similar sentiment describing the novel as Atkinson’s “most ambitious and most gripping work;” and “truly brilliant” was the verdict of the London Times.
Life After Life took one character, Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910, and played out seemingly endless variations of her life: some of which didn’t even get started when she died during birth; others saw her live on and achieve momentous things. Given the time period with which Atkinson was working, World War II offered myriad potential deaths for her protagonist, not to mention others around her. Life After Life’s ambitions were as multifarious as its protagonist’s lives, but any initial confusion slowly gave way to an estimable complexity of message and depth of character. The result was a novel about how novelists play God when they write, giving then taking away their characters’ lives as they see fit; but it was also a beguiling and eminently readable period piece in the vein of a family saga. The Todds were a captivating bunch, no more so than Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy: beloved sibling; apple of their mother’s eye; mischievous inspiration for ‘Augustus,’ the hero of his Aunt Izzie’s lucrative Just William-esque boyhood adventure stories; and heroic bomber pilot in the war.
From the sidelines of Ursula’s lives in Life After Life, Atkinson brings Teddy to the fore in A God in Ruins, casting him as the hero of her “companion piece”—it’s not a sequel, she’s been keen to point out; partly, one supposes, due to the temporal shifts in the former: how is one supposed to write a sequel to a story that is itself an apparently endless series of permutations? And, while Life After Life explored the notion of living a life over and over again until you got it right, A God in Ruins focuses on the what ifs of the longevity of a single existence.
Unlike Life After Life, which was told roughly chronologically (taking into account the necessary stop-start element of the versions of Ursula’s life that cut her off in her various primes), A God in Ruins jumps around, beginning in 1944, then shifting back to 1925, before suddenly leaping forward to 1980—all in all the action spans just shy of a century. Fundamentally the effect is the same; a layering of material, the depth of which increases the reader’s understanding of the plot and characters. It’s also decidedly less disorientating than the structure of Life After Life; the rhythm of the narrative is much more temperate, not least because it’s a form most readers will be at least familiar with.
It makes sense that Teddy himself would have a few different routes open to him in Life After Life. In one, he plummets to his death mid-aerial battle, while in another he survives into peacetime. A God in Ruins follows the trajectory of the latter option (the one any reader with half a heart is rooting for), but this both is and isn’t simple wish-fulfillment on Atkinson’s part, as the novel subsequently poses the question: at what cost?
After 70-odd raids, and with the airmen around him consistently dropping like flies, Teddy seems to be nothing short of untouchable; immortal even, he begins to suspect. He doesn’t make plans for the future, that would be tempting fate too far, but he does promise himself “a good quiet life” if he makes it through in one piece: “Afterwards—because it turned out that there was to be an afterwards for Teddy—he resolved that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all that he could do.”
And he’s true to his word. He marries his childhood sweetheart Nancy (one of the Shawcross girls who lived in the house next door to the Todd’s country home, Fox Corner) in a union that offers them fond companionship rather than grand passion. The couple have one daughter together, the wonderfully obnoxious and self-obsessed Viola, but Teddy’s relationship with her leaves much to be desired on his part: he had hoped for something “like the one that Major Shawcross had had with his daughters, or perhaps the slightly more restrained one that Pamela and Ursula had enjoyed with Hugh, but Viola had no space left in her heart for him, Nancy occupied it all.” Later there are his two grandchildren—clever, self-contained Bertie and poor, struggling Sunny—who end up filling “a lot of the spaces” left in his life by widowerhood and retirement; a mutually beneficial arrangement since there’s little love lost between Viola and her offspring as she “lurched from one disaster to the next in her life.”
It’s here that we find some of the most moving moments in the book, particularly in Sonny’s emotional neglect. Atkinson is really quite brilliant at the tragi-comic, epitomized by this scene between Sunny and his mentally-troubled father—scion of a once wealthy aristocratic family now on its uppers—while both father and son are living with them:
“‘They don’t know anything about children,’ his father said. ‘You have no idea what it was like growing up here.’
I do know what it’s like, Sunny thought, I am growing up here.
‘They believe in deprivation, that’s the problem, they think it’s character-building when in fact it’s quite the opposite. Of course, really, I was raised by a nanny. She was worse than the lot of them put together.’ Sunny had no idea what a nanny was. The only nanny he knew about was the goat that he remembered from Devon. She had smelt horrible and always tried to eat your clothes if you got too close to her. It seemed unlikely that his father had been brought up by a goat, but Sunny was beyond surprised these days.”
Soon after Sunny’s father dies in a horrific accident—in which Sunny’s involvement is cruelly misconstrued by his vile grandmother—and Teddy, like an unassuming knight in shining armor, is quick to rescue his grandson from this woman’s damaging clutches. Such heroics litter Teddy’s life, but they’re of the everyday, ordinary kind; nothing quite on a par with the derring dos of combat. In one of the many parallel existences in Life After Life, Ursula prepares to assassinate Hitler; this, we’re led to believe, is the version of her life that gets it right. By comparison, there’s nothing so grand in store for Teddy; his is a life of (mostly) gentle comings and goings—without wanting to spoil the plot, he does rise to the occasion when Nancy falls seriously ill, but it’s a heroism born out of spur of the moment desperation rather than anything else.
Ultimately, Atkinson is asking whether Teddy’s life should have been spared? Surely there’s something to be said for a life cut off in its prime, the glorious death of a hero, shot down in battle, dying for his country; rather than a life eked out into his nineties, a “neglected ruin” in a care home unable to communicate and wearing adult diapers? It’s no coincidence that the novel draws to a close with an extract from one of Aunt Izzie’s Augustus books; Teddy’s alter-ego, a prank-playing Peter Pan who never grew up. Perhaps the better version of Teddy himself?
If Life After Life was all about do-overs, A God in Ruins presents the opposite, consistently reminding us of the limitations of one life and one life only. “[T]here can never be any going back anyway, war or not,” decrees the Ursula of this volume, “We can only ever be walking into our future, best foot forward and all that.” The message is clear, “there are no second chances, life’s not a rehearsal,” the now 60-year-old Viola thinks as she looks back over her life and realizes she should have loved her children more. It’s less uplifting a message than that of the novel that precedes it, but as I turned the final page I realized that I had enjoyed it more than its companion volume. What if, indeed…