It is impossible to review this book without reference to Kate Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life, but what the relationship is between the two is not so easy to say. Not a sequel, this is no continuation of the story. A pendant, maybe; or, as Maureen Speller has suggested, a diptych; Atkinson herself, in her author’s note, calls it a “companion piece.” Something of all three, I suspect. Life After Life, very deliberately, had no closure, so, in a sense, this new novel closes off the earlier volume; where the earlier book was full of repeated births, A God in Ruins is equally full of death (including twice, in very different circumstances, of the central character himself). Yet A God in Ruins does not conclude a story but rather opens it out in new and unexpected ways that challenge and, in places, directly contradict what we had read before. Life After Life and A God in Ruins go hand in hand, but they are pulling in opposite directions.
In Life After Life we see Ursula Todd being born, dying, and being born again in an endless reiteration that took her through varied experiences of the early twentieth century. Gradually, a vague awareness of these multiple lives begins to seep into her consciousness and she starts to find ways to direct her life. By the end we realise that what she is aiming for is the survival of her beloved brother, Teddy, a bomber pilot shot down and killed in a raid over Berlin in the last year of the Second World War. The cycle of her countless deaths leads eventually to him parachuting to safety, being captured and held as a Prisoner of War during the final months of conflict, and eventually re-emerging into Ursula’s life amid the celebrations of Victory in Europe.
Now, in A God in Ruins, we follow Teddy’s life before, during, and particularly after that fateful raid. It is a life of aftermath, of the shadow cast by war and how it changes people. The invigorating twists of time, the repetitions and variations that made Life After Life, to my mind, the best if unsung science fiction novel of 2013, are absent here. Indeed it is Ursula herself who notes, ironically, that “We can only ever be walking into our future,” to which the authorial voice adds: “This was when people still believed in the dependable nature of time—a past, a present, a future—the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on” (p. 73). Those tenses are ended by the war; the circumstances that allowed Ursula to march boldly into the future until death sent her back to begin the journey all over again are gone now. The change in tense, the destruction of dependable past, present, and future, is a personal loss, a disabling of the way the individual situates himself within his world, as Teddy reflects at one point: “Part of him never adjusted to having a future” (p. 96). And this is reflected in the most distinctive characteristic of the novel.
The confidence in the nature of time that underpinned Life After Life enabled Atkinson to stretch it out and loop it back upon itself in the countless iterations of Ursula’s life. The lack of confidence in time that underpins A God in Ruins results in Atkinson collapsing it all into a point. At any juncture of Teddy’s life, all of his life, past and future, is present.
This is no ordered narrative: the last casualty of war is chronology. The various chapters take us from 1944 to 1925 to 1980 to 1947 and so on, but even this sequence, taking us back and forth between significant moments in a life that extends from the first months of the First World War to the Jubilee year of 2012, suggests a greater order than is actually the case. Because at any moment within any chapter we might flash back to events weeks before or flash forward to events decades in the future. In fact these shifts tend to occur with such frequency, often mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence, that you have to keep your wits about you when reading. The memories are certainly Teddy’s, his is a life lived in remembrance and regret, but are the premonitions? Nothing in the novel would tell us so, but again nothing in the novel would expressly deny it; it is easy to read Teddy Todd as a version of Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, cut loose in time.
But as we shift restlessly back and forth in time, what life do we construct for this golden boy, this god whose premature wartime death led, in one iteration of Ursula’s life, to the suicide of his mother and the despair of his sister? It is not a great or glorious life, that is for sure; there are no major achievements, no moments of great pride. There is a marriage to his childhood sweetheart; an affectionate, even loving marriage, but not a passion. You get the sense that Teddy drifted into it more by circumstance than by intent. When Nancy dies of a brain tumour, Teddy hurrying her final moments, he is left to raise their daughter alone, a task at which he proves singularly unsuccessful. In the immediate aftermath of war he becomes a teacher, but does not shine, and eventually starts writing a nature column for a small local paper, though his true writing ambitions are unfulfilled. After the war he reflects: “He had the soul of a country parson who had lost his faith. But it didn’t matter now, for the great god Pan was indeed dead and war had long ago killed Teddy’s desire to make poetry” (p. 81). As he grows older he has to give up his beloved garden (at one point he cites Voltaire: “Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. Quietly. And that would be his redemption” [p. 336]. It is meant metaphorically, but the repeated references to his enjoyment of the garden in York suggests there is also a literal truth in this), bullied into sheltered housing by his daughter, and later still bullied into a care home. Not a distinguished life, quite an ordinary one in fact, but like any life it has its moments of joy and humour and delight, its small satisfactions, and throughout it all Teddy remains a resolutely intelligent and attractive figure.
Yet it is not the events of the life that concern us, but rather the way the life has been shaped by war. He considers, at one point, that “Flying on bombing raids had become him . . . He had believed once that he would be formed by the architecture of war, but now, he realized, he had been erased by it” (p. 262). Erasure is an overstatement, his relationship with his grandchildren, Sonny and Bertie, is certainly positive; and his career before the war, a position in his father’s bank that he hated, hardly suggests that what was erased was much of a loss. Nevertheless, the sense that his life began and ended in the Halifax bombers is one of the persistent if largely unstated themes of the novel.
Another way in which this novel differs from its predecessor is in focus. In Life After Life, Atkinson kept our attention fixed upon Ursula the whole time; in A God in Ruins our attention shifts. There are long passages in which we see through the eyes of his wife, Nancy, his troubled daughter, Viola, his grandchildren, Sonny and Bertie, even passages where the focus is on his father, his future mother-in-law, his aunt, and other relatively peripheral figures; Ursula made her world, Teddy’s world is made by others. There is even a parallel Teddy: his aunt used him as the model for Augustus, the rapscallion antihero of her popular children’s novels (Atkinson includes a couple of excellent pastiches of Richmal Crompton’s magnificent Just William to give us a flavour of Augustus). Teddy hates Augustus the eternal child, but at moments of pressure he imagines what an adult Augustus might have done in the same circumstances. It means we constantly see Teddy from a variety of different perspectives, which seems to anchor him more firmly in the world.
Just as the necessary endpoint of Life After Life was Teddy’s resurrection, so the necessary endpoint of A God in Ruins is Teddy’s death. But as we approach that point, two things start to happen to the narrative. Firstly, the restlessness in time is reduced and the story begins to alternate between just two points: the key bombing raid on Berlin that was, we know from the first book, the hinge upon which his very existence turned; and the moment of his death in 2012. Secondly, while the focus in 1944 remains totally upon Teddy, in 2012 he becomes peripheral to his own story and everything we see is through the eyes of Viola, Bertie, and Sunny. At the moment of his death we are told: “The air rippled and shimmered. Time narrowed to a pinpoint. It was about to happen” (p. 371). It matters not a jot whether we read that literally (as a science fiction reader might) or metaphorically (as a mainstream reader might); the novel is about time and all time comes down to the moment of death, the moment we have been anticipating all the way through the novel, the moment that releases every other moment. This novel may start at the point that Ursula’s Life After Life finally liberated him back into life, or it may start here. As Sonny, Teddy’s troubled grandchild turned Buddhist teacher might say: all times are the same time.
Paul Kincaid is the author of two collections of essays and reviews: What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call and Response. He has received both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award.