British author Kate Atkinson’s new novel, “A God in Ruins,” is a “dazzling overlay,” says reviewer Moira Macdonald, to Atkinson’s critically acclaimed “Life After Life,” the story of Teddy, the younger brother of “Life After Life’s” Ursula Todd.
‘A God in Ruins’
by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown, 394 pp., $28
Birds soar through the pages of Kate Atkinson’s transcendent new novel, “A God in Ruins”; a companion piece (not a sequel as much as a dazzling overlay) to her previous, critically acclaimed book “Life After Life.”
In its early pages, we re-meet Teddy Todd, younger brother of Ursula Todd, whose lives, and deaths, were the subject of “Life After Life.” At age 11, living a gentle, Arcadian life with his family in the English countryside, Teddy is disturbed by the news that his colorful Aunt Izzie once ate a skylark, and found it delicious. “It wasn’t just the one lark that had been silenced by Izzie … 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.”
Teddy’s long life spans most of the 20th century (he was born in 1914), and, like Ursula’s, it’s defined by the war: He was a fighter pilot, flying dozens of harrowing missions, and he’s haunted by those days and by lost comrades — songs never sung — for the rest of his life. Atkinson doesn’t repeat the brilliant, almost science-fiction conceit of “Life After Life” (Ursula, repeatedly, dies and starts her life over again, getting another chance to get it right). “A God In Ruins,” instead, finds another way to bend time. The novel unfolds episodically, jumping from 1944 to 1925 to 2012 and backward and forward again — and, no matter the time, the narrator knows what lies ahead. Young Teddy, on a sunny day in 1925, wonders if he’ll ever have a son, a boy who exists “in a future that Teddy couldn’t even begin to imagine.” In that same paragraph, we learn that he only had a daughter, “something which would be a sadness for him although he never spoke of it.” But that narrator is sly; withholding some details while providing others, until the book’s final pages seem to explode in light, like a bird flying into the sun.
“A God in Ruins,” which takes its title from a line of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (“A man is a god in ruins,” from the essay “Nature”), reminds us, on every page, of Atkinson’s gift for creating characters. (Her novels, of which this is her tenth, include the irresistible Jackson Brodie mystery series, and her prizewinning debut “Behind the Scenes at the Museum.”)
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Teddy, a man of immense kindness and calm reflection, is the quiet center on which the others in his family rotate: his sensible wife, Nancy, for whom we’re given just the smallest hint of her own secret history; their volatile, self-absorbed daughter Viola (who “resented other people’s pleasure, as if it subtracted something from the world rather than adding to it”); Viola’s hapless children Sunny and Bertie. In cameo appearances are the vivid Izzie (whose last will and testament, later in the book, is a moving throwback to “Life After Life”); Ursula; Teddy’s mother, Sylvie; and an assortment of Teddy’s fellow pilots. Though the war hangs over every page, there are only two extended passages in the book that describe Teddy’s war experiences; it’s as if he couldn’t bear to remember.
You don’t have to have read “Life After Life” to understand and appreciate this book (though you might miss a couple of references). But I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t want to experience both, for the pleasure of Atkinson’s prose — every page feels like a generous treasure hunt for gems — and for the feeling each book gives, of becoming lost within something bigger than ourselves, something grand and dazzling and real. Closing its covers, you may think that you hear, as Teddy does, “the skylark ascending on his thread of song.”