Intended as a companion piece rather than a sequel to Life after Life, the novel in which a character called Ursula Todd lived her life over and over again (Atkinson informs us that A God in Ruins should be thought of as “one of Ursula’s lives, an unwritten one”) – but unlike that book, this is not a novel concerned with time travel. And yet – and yet – this time around it is the reader who is the time traveller. We have all, no doubt, read books that unfold in a couple of locales – the elderly narrator going about his business, or going on a trip, say, whilst the younger version of the narrator goes about his business, there usually being some point in the past where a life-changing calamity occurs (and if the writer is of a certain standard, the calamity in the past is echoed with a calamity in the present, a health issue, say or a move to a care home). In some senses, A God in Ruins exists in the same country as those kinds of books; at the same time, however, it’s much more ambitious. This is a novel about Ursula’s brother, Teddy, and like Vonnegut’s Tralfalmadorians, we get to exist in all times simultaneously, and thus be privy to life-changing events both long before and long after they have occurred.
We first meet Teddy towards the end of the Second World War, in the moments immediately prior to what became his last flight (he was a pilot in the RAF); then we are re-introduced to him as a child, in the company of a flighty aunt who goes on to write a Just William-type series of books (loosely based on Teddy). We meet Augustus himself, a couple of times. We skip forward to 1980 and meet Teddy’s daughter Viola and her children. We hop back to 1947 and glimpse the beginning of Teddy’s married life with Nancy, his childhood sweetheart (although she abhors the term). We experience Teddy’s war. We see Viola hustle Teddy into residential housing, and later, impatiently, into a care home. We are intimate with Teddy’s marriage (in a way that other novelists would have taken a novel over). Eventually, confidently, we skip about within chapters, inhabiting different times, omniscience occasionally lifting us still further, gifting us God-like glimpses into the lives of passing strangers. And throughout, Teddy continues to return to the thought of his life as existing in “an afterword”:
“For a long time during the war, he hadn’t believed in a future – it had seemed like an absurd proposition – and now that he was living in this ‘afterward’, as he had thought of it during the war, it seemed like an even more absurd proposition.”
A God in Ruins takes great pleasure in exploring absurd propositions. For example, Teddy – a man who takes the world “every day as it came, hour by hour” – passes through a world that once “believed in the dependable nature of time – a past, a present and a future” – and has conversations with his sister (Ursula, who we know things about that Teddy never discovers, if we have read Life after Life), about time travel, about going back in history to kill Hitler, for example, and conversations with Nancy, and later we hear from Viola (who is a sour, grumpy sort), who shares:
“As you got older and time went on, you realised that the distinction between truth and fiction didn’t really matter because eventually everything disappeared into the soupy, amnesiac mess of history.”
Again, A God in Ruins wallows in that amnesiac mess (we see Teddy struggle to recall the names of men who died alongside him, we see Teddy have trysts and then later forget the name of the lady he ‘trysted’ with, we see misunderstandings, cross purposes, lives shaped by casual cruelties). And Atkinson herself has a few sly chortles (Viola thinks about her dad and wishes, briefly, she had paid more attention to him so she could write about his experiences: “People always took war novels seriously.”) along the way culminating in a climax that, whilst utterly at one with the rest of the book (and also Life after Life), still recalls the curtain dropping finale of Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Via Viola, who becomes a popular novelist, Atkinson manages to poke the odd dig at the literary establishment too (because Atkinson, despite her Costas, is still, I think, thought of as being more popular than literary).
So A God in Ruins is certainly serious and comic, substantial and involved. There are moments – Teddy’s description of his life during the first years of his marriage, for example:
“He saw the future unravelling before him, day after dismal day. Saw himself dutifully earning money to support Nancy and his as-yet-unborn children who were already weighing him down with responsibility. Saw himself, too, on the day he finally retired, a disappointed man.”
or some of the more poignant deaths in the book (we won’t spoil), that are tremendously affecting. At the same time, there are portions of the book that are a little drier than others (surprisingly, some of the war time interludes). But the good, of which there is a lot, far outweighs the bad.
And the God of the title? What about that? God is certainly ruminated upon, the role God plays in human lives (both as an active participant and as an idea amongst humans themselves), and Atkinson has a lot that is interesting to say and what her characters share is pertinent both to the action of this book and the relationship it shares with Life after Life. Teddy is also a kind of God, in his way, the best person another man has ever met, at one point. I also think, given the explosive way Atkinson dismantles the traditional (certainly popular) narrative, that God is also the novel. But if this is the novel in ruins, it feels like there is still fun to be had amongst the rags and patches.
Any Cop?: Whilst no strictly speaking the kind of book I would normally be drawn to, Life after Life and now A God in Ruins demonstrates a wealth of erudition and charm, two things that don’t normally loiter in the same precincts, and lead us to believe that Atkinson is a writer who continues to get better – and who may at some point surprise us all a great deal.