Kate Atkinson's Life After Life
gave us the many paths of Ursula Todd, a British woman who dies and is reborn again and again, each time learning to better navigate the 20th century. Now, in A God in Ruins
, a companion piece rather than a sequel, Atkinson gives us a single life for Ursula's younger brother Teddy, the family favorite, who becomes a Royal Air Force pilot and eventually a grandfather.
Readers of the first book, familiar with Ursula's numerous incarnations, will understand that this is not Teddy's only, or even official, life -- knowledge that makes its details no less urgent or real. The novel also offers something rare: a narrative that exists not just alongside but within its predecessor.
Though there is but one timeline, it's fluid. We move among past, present, and future -- often in the same paragraph -- and among characters, from Teddy to his unpleasant daughter to his misunderstood grandson. Atkinson maneuvers time and perspective as deftly as Teddy pilots his Halifax bomber -- but the story never becomes confusing or loses Atkinson's ease and wit.
Where Life After Life
focused on both the buildup to World War II and Blitz-era London, A God in Ruins dwells more on the war itself and its far-reaching consequences. Anyone can research military history; it's Atkinson's psychological details that let her stand with such great war writers as Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O'Brien, and Pat Barker. While she doesn't shy away from combat scenes, her true subject isn't war so much as its repercussions -- not the splash of the rock but the ripples in the pond.
I worried that this book would spoil its precursor for me, funneling infinite possibility into one vessel. It avoids that fate beautifully, especially in the last pages, when Atkinson gives the kaleidoscope a final twist and invites us to question anew the space between reality and possibility, and the ways a life might fork.
Read Life After Life
first, as this story is full of winking references to that one. Unless, of course, you can make like Ursula Todd and live two parallel lives; in that case, read one book in each.
-- Rebecca Makkai