Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the best novel published in English in 2013, is about Ursula, an Englishwoman born in 1910 who lives her life over and over again. Each time she’s reborn in 1910 she tries to correct the errors of her previous lives, until finally she can live the life she’s supposed to and attain the grace that she, and all of us, deserve.
Given the premise, there’s a certain logic to Atkinson’s writing a sequel to Life After Life, though she describes it as a “companion novel” rather than a sequel. A God in Ruins (the phrase is from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins”) shifts the focus to a minor player in Ursula’s story: her brother Teddy, a handsome, affable RAF pilot. Teddy was the golden boy in Life After Life, beloved by everyone, and in that book Ursula devotes a lot of effort to building a life in which both she and Teddy survive.
The joke of A God in Ruins is that Teddy turns out on closer inspection to be a rather dull dog. As Atkinson writes, “He had the soul of a country parson who had lost his faith.” He’s an odd choice to put at the center of a novel, because he has no center himself. A poet manqué (he lacked talent) who drifts through life and marriage and career in default mode, Teddy comes alive only in the war: “Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was. The only place he cared about was the inside of a Halifax, the smells of dirt and oil, of sour sweat, of rubber and metal and the tang of oxygen.” You feel it: Atkinson’s pounding, kinetic descriptions of bombing runs over Germany are a thing to be experienced.
There’s no Ursula-magic in A God in Ruins–Teddy has just the one life, and barely that–but there’s plenty of the writer’s kind: the narration slides freely forward and backward in time, from Teddy’s youth to extreme old age. Sometimes Atkinson shifts the focus elsewhere on the family tree, to Teddy’s mother Sylvie, to his grandchildren Bertie and Sunny and in particular to his daughter Viola. She’s a more dynamic but less appealing individual than Teddy, a caustic middle-aged midlist novelist who resents her parents and was, to her deep regret, a terrible one herself.
In fact, there is a widespread and desperate shortage of love in these pages, between parents and children, husbands and wives–Atkinson rations it out to her characters stingily, like butter and eggs in wartime. (Viola and her son hug “warily, as if one of them might have a knife.”) It takes tremendous discipline as a novelist to keep your characters to a bare minimum of love and consolation, to cut them near zero slack, but Atkinson does it. Which means that while A God in Ruins is as finely crafted as Life After Life, which is saying a lot–everything–it’s not as much fun.
She has a grand design, though, if you can see it through, that leads to an almost unbearably poignant finish: not high tragedy, just a summing-up of the toll exacted on average lives by the arbitrariness of chance, the inevitability of loss, the irreversibility of fateful choices, amortized over the decades. Having spun one great novel out of second, third and 50th chances, she’s spun another out of the fact that in reality, we get only one. “If Viola could start again–there are no second chances, life’s not a rehearsal, blah blah blah–yes, but if she could, if she could re-take the journey that wasn’t really a journey, what would she do? She would learn how to love.” But of course, unlike Ursula, she can’t.
This appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of TIME.
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