Something about writing a companion book rather than a sequel, or the awfully named prequel, seems to cause both critics and readers problems. That though is precisely what this novel by Kate Atkinson is.
The immaculate ‘Life After Life’ gave us a set of memorable characters notably Ursula around whom the story was crafted but also her family. The former provided us with a memorable novel that rightly drew critical acclaim for its brilliant invention.
I wrote this about that novel – ‘Atkinson deals the cards of her creation: Kings and Spades, Aces and Deuces. She fires them onto the green cloth in random order. It isn’t until all the cards have been laid out that some perspective is gained. Each chapter is a snapshot in time, shuffled then tossed. They form a mosaic as ink on white paper, fragments of a tale jig sawed apart.’
This, ‘A God in Ruins,’ could quite easily be another, albeit lengthy, chapter in that first tale. It deals with Ursula’s brother Teddy and offers an alternative life to the ones provided within that first fiction. It is not as experimental as its companion. It does not shuffle time offering infinite chances but is formed in clear linear detail. Even though years appear as chapters in fragmented form, which adds tension but also allows for character development, there is no sense of ‘Groundhog Day.’ It offers no loop by which alternative realities can be lived and then re-lived again.
Teddy’s life, from his days as bomber pilot flying Halifax’s, through his married life, his years as a man at odds with the world he finds himself growing old in , is portrayed by a sequence of events captured as though they were images hung upon a photographers drying line. Collective snapshots as it were. This effect enables the reader to view not only his life but also those of the people around him, a collage defining events but also individuals.
What we get is on one level a fiction. We read of Teddy his loves, his life his moments of despair and loss; of his marriage; of Nancy his wife; of their offspring Viola, a thoroughly unpleasant form of person; their dysfunctional grandchildren Sunny and Bertie who suffer miserably at the hands of their fashionably dropout mother and their narcotic dependent nonce of a father. These people reveal to us the results of actions taken. Of how one set of circumstances can give birth to another seemingly poles apart.
On another level it is about the passage of time bringing with it that foreboding sense of intransigence, a lack of compromise, of life being ever so fleeting, of passing too soon leaving behind unresolved issues.
It is also about war. If time is an invention of man then war too is man-made. It is our turning our backs upon all we hold dear, our dreadful fall from grace, from our potential to achieve god-head as we embrace our malignant, malevolent creativity with all its barbed cruelties and its own bleak logic.
I found myself at times moved to tears as Teddy reflects on given situations from his life. His sense of impending doom is only ever a brief thought away. His memories the things he clings too much in the same way his former RAF compatriots clung to life as they fell from the skies their parachutes alight.
Judging this book by comparing it with ‘Life After Life’ is futile. This another book entirely.