In Kate Atkinson’s bravura World War II novel Life After Life, she worked a new kind of storytelling magic. She introduced her main character, Ursula, killed her off, then rewound to her birth, telling variations on her life story over and over for hundreds of pages. The result was one of the English language’s best books about mortality, one that drove home truths about the capriciousness of fate, the precariousness of health, the jagged edges of grief. Atkinson managed to inject genre elements into a book that otherwise captured the straightforward horrors of history. In doing so, she perfectly balanced realism and surreality, much in the way that war does itself.
How does one follow up a masterpiece? In Atkinson’s case, she followed up The Godfather with The Godfather: Part II.
Her new novel, A God In Ruins, bills itself as a companion piece to Life After Life, rather than a sequel. In trying this, Atkinson joins some of the most innovative and impressive authors on both sides of the pond, including Hilary Mantel, Marilynne Robinson, and Jane Smiley, who are busy constructing high-brow trilogies and ambitious spinoffs of their own. Atkinson more than lives up to the challenge and proves herself worthy of her company.
A God In Ruins features many of the same familiar characters and takes place in the same world—though perhaps it’s more precise to say one of the same worlds, since Life After Life presented the reader with a variety of parallel universes. Here, Ursula appears as a character who lives through childhood as well as the blitz and does not appear to have assassinated Hitler. Her beloved brother Teddy, a RAF pilot and the novel’s protagonist, participates in the devastating aerial bombing of Nuremberg and survives. He returns home to marry Nancy, his childhood sweetheart, to have a daughter and later grandchildren of his own, and to mull over his memories.
Once more Atkinson invites us into Fox Corner and Jackdaws and other romantic-sounding rural British cottages. Once more we learn that life was not more poetic in the past simply because it occurred by candlelight. Without being sensationalistic, Life After Life reminded readers that untimely death, rape, accidental pregnancy, abortion, and violence in general were, while not spoken of as freely as they are now, still endemic to the early 20th century. A God In Ruins, in turn, reminds readers there is no balm for the quotidian disappointment of getting what you thought you wanted. It engages seriously with the question, Is it better to burn out or to fade away?
Postwar England is a grim place. Residents coping with scarcity and rationing hardly feel victorious. Yet the novel maintains a wry humor; neither the characters nor we readers are asked to wallow in misery. Instead the plot moves at a steady clip even as it moves around in time, incorporating scenes of everything from Teddy’s childhood and his RAF days to his years as a newlywed, a father, a grandfather, and finally a man dying of old age. Throughout, Atkinson’s prose is as evocative as it is economical. Take the moment, during wartime, when Teddy begins to understand his role and the role of his fellow pilots:
Teddy realized they were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.
So much wisdom and frustration, and so much futility, conveyed in two short sentences.
In an appendix to the book that is nearly as good as the book itself, Atkinson writes, “all novels are not only fiction but they are about fiction too.” A lofty standard; perhaps not all novels meet it. Truly memorable ones, such as this one and Life After Life, certainly do.