Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” was a high-concept novel that read with all the pleasures of a big old-fashioned book.
Ursula Todd was born in England in 1910 – over and over and over again. Like a video game character, she went back to the beginning and started over every time she died (of drowning as a toddler, of the flu epidemic, and then multiple times in the Blitz during World War II).
“What if you had the chance to do it again and again, until you finally got it right? Would you do it?” her younger brother, Teddy, asks her at one point.
Ursula had a seemingly infinite number of chances to get her life right. Teddy has just one, in Atkinson’s new A God in Ruins. This time, Atkinson has a written what looks like a big, old-fashioned book, with just enough high-concept risks to make readers start riffling back through the pages as soon as they've done.
Close readers of “Life After Life” may notice that some of the details don’t match from book to book.
“I like to think of ‘A God in Ruins’ as one of Ursula’s lives, an unwritten one,” Atkinson writes in an afterword. “This sounds like novelist trickery, as indeed it perhaps is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”
Consider yourself warned.
The novel opens with Teddy growing up at Fox Corner a boy who loves dogs, birds, his sister Ursula, and Nancy, the girl next door. The bane of his existence are the "Augustus" books his flapper aunt Izzie writes using him as a model for titular character. In an act that Teddy believes to be just as criminal as appropriating his childhood, Izzie admits to having once eaten a lark while in Europe, causing young Teddy a sleepless night.
“It wasn’t just the one lark that had been silenced by Izzie. (A mouthful.) It was the generations of birds that would have come after it and now would never be born. All those beautiful songs that would never be sung,” he thinks. “Later in his life he learned the word ‘exponential,’ and later still the word ‘fractal,’ but for now it was a flock that grew larger and larger as it disappeared into a future that would never be.”
Those silenced songs are very much on Teddy’s – and Atkinson’s – mind in “A God in Ruins.”
Teddy becomes an RAF pilot during World War II, participating in the bombing of Germany. “Sacrifice,” he remembers his mother Sylvie saying, “is a word that makes people feel noble about slaughter.”
He thinks of himself and his fellow pilots as birds flung at a wall in the hopes that, if there are enough of them, they will eventually break through. Most of them, of course, suffer the fate of a bird hitting a wall. “Their names written on water. Or scorched into the earth. Or atomized into the air. Legion.”
Teddy is part of the bombing of Hamburg and the idea of deliberately targeting women and children and the elderly is something he grapples with throughout his life. “At the twisted heart of every war were the innocents.”
Nancy, meanwhile, becomes a brilliant mathematician who spent the war in Bletchley Park deflecting questions about exactly what she did, while Ursula, as readers of “Life After Life” will remember, works in the War Office during the Blitz.
After the war – and Teddy has difficulty coming to terms with having an afterward – he determines to live the rest of his life with kindness. “He had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future.”
Teddy’s resolve to be kind is tested most by his resentful daughter, Viola (who comes closest to being a caricature, until a few heartbreaking revelations at the end of the novel) and rewarded most by his granddaughter, Bertie. Bertie, whose quick intelligence reminds Teddy of her grandmother, survives Viola’s neglectful, bad-tempered stabs at parenting better than her brother, Sunny.
“Teddy knew he had failed Viola but he wasn’t sure how. (‘Do you ever think it might be the other way round?’ Bertie said. ‘That she might have failed you?’ ‘It doesn’t work like that,” Teddy said.)”
Atkinson threads visual motifs throughout the novel, from birds – enough to give Tippi Hedron nightmares for years – to the red lines tracing their paths through the bombing runs Teddy pilots his Halifax on to the red pull cords in the nursing home where he goes to live after breaking his hip. Fragments of poetry and English poets – especially William Blake – serve as touchstones throughout.
In addition to hopscotching through time from World War II all the way to 2012 and back again, the narrator includes parentheticals about the fates of characters and a few narrative winks for readers of “Life After Life.”
During the war, for example, Teddy has an affair with a wealthy young woman whose family has casually draped sheets over their priceless antiques and artwork in London. Teddy was enamored of a little Rembrandt and his lover suggests he take it. “If he took the Rembrandt his life would be quite different. He would be a thief, for one thing. A different narrative…. In later life, he wished he had appropriated the painting. No one would have believed it was a genuine Rembrandt, it would have existed entirely for his guilty pleasure, hanging on a suburban wall. He should have done. The London house was hit by a V-2, the Rembrandt lost for ever.”
Atkinson also uses her writing to discuss the art of writing. Teddy becomes a nature columnist and a small-town newspaperman. “That’s a lot of ‘b’s,’ lad,’ Bill said” of one of Teddy’s early efforts. “ ‘I bet there’s a word for that.’ ‘Alliteration,’ Teddy said and Bill Morrison said, ‘Well, try not to.’ ”
She seems to come down on the same populist side of art articulated over the years by everyone from the director in “All About Eve” to “High Fidelity” author Nick Hornby. Teddy’s Aunt Izzie, who earned a Croix de Guerre that she never told anyone about during World War I, “discovered that fiction could be both a means of resurrection and of preservation. ‘When all else has gone, art remains,’ she said to Sylvie during the next war. ‘The Adventures of Augustus is art? ‘ Sylvie said, raising an elitist eyebrow.... Izzie’s definition of art was broader than Sylvie’s definition, of course. ‘Art is anything created by one person and enjoyed by another.’ ”
At one point, Viola, who becomes a successful novelist late in life, comes across a lending library at a spiritual retreat.
“There was a handwritten sign attached to the shelf that said, ‘Please dear friend, leave these books in the condition that you found them,’ which was ridiculous as no book could ever be left in the condition that you found it in because it was changed every time it was read by someone.”
The same thing, of course, can be said of readers, who are never in quite the same condition when they finish a book. When it comes to a novel like “A God in Ruins,” that change will always be for the better.