Once upon a time, before I started reading romance regularly I went through a pretty intense war book phase. (I swear I’m fun at parties.) I read any novel I could find: The Things They Carried, All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch 22 and more. So when I heard that Kate Atkinson — one of my favorite mainstream and mystery authors — was writing a World War II duology, I was first in line (once I got over my disappointment that she wasn’t delivering another Jackson Brodie mystery).
Note: this review contains spoilers for Life After Life.
Life After Life was a masterpiece. It topped many “best of” lists for 2013, mine included. Atkinson’s story of Ursula, who starts her life over and over again, as she fails to survive and then tries, tries again, is gut wrenching and wonderful, difficult and joyful to read all at once. The look we get at World War II as Ursula lives through the London Blitz and attempts, in various incarnations, to stop the war by assassinating Hitler, is fascinating, as we see characters we grow to love die and start again. As readers, we only get what the authors want to tell us about characters, we don’t always know how their stories end, completely, but Atkinson gives us this gift and then takes it away and then gives it back. It’s fulfilling and frustrating all at once.
How could Atkinson, whose varied backlist is truly a list of treasures to be discovered, top that? I pondered this as I sat down to read Life After Life‘s followup, A God In Ruins. But I was asking the wrong question. She didn’t improve upon Ursula’s adventures. Instead, she wrote the perfect complement by telling the life story of Ursula’s beloved brother Teddy.
Teddy is the golden boy of the Todd family, unabashedly his mother’s favorite. In Life After Life, he’s killed in action after several tours as a pilot, only to be resurrected during one of Ursula’s final incarnations. A God in Ruins answers a few lingering questions we had left over from Life After Life, which is very nice if you’re a completist like me. But what the novel really tackles is the mundanity of life. Teddy never excepted to survive. And then he did.
A God in Ruins follows Teddy as he deals with the aftermath of the war, examining how you go back to living a normal existence after experiencing — and being the cause of — such destruction. We see Teddy as regular life takes hold — getting a job at the bank with your dad, marrying your childhood sweetheart because everyone expects you to, moving to the suburbs because she asks. (The suburbs, where all interesting people go to wither. I kid, I’m typing from the ‘burbs.) It’s a fascinating look at a normal life — because that is, after all, what Teddy gets. Teddy, whose mother loved him so much that she killed herself in the timeline where Teddy doesn’t survive the war. Teddy, considered a lucky charm by his fellow servicemen. He turns out to be ordinary, just like the rest of us. His compass is sure, but, it turns out, this life is going to be a long series of compromises for Teddy, just like for the rest of us. (I told you I’m in the suburbs, did I not?)
In the hands of an author less skilled than Atkinson, a book about how life is long and mundane would be a slog. But by taking a character so revered, and revealing how his child despises him, his wife mostly appreciates him, his career is less than inspired, we’re given a close look at what we all get — just one life. Hopefully a long one, mostly filled with regular days, if you’re lucky. Teddy’s really A God in Ruins, after all, but most of us don’t start out in that lofty a position to begin with.
I won’t spoil the end, but it’s all worth it. For Teddy, for Ursula and for us.
A God in Ruins is out this week. For more literary reads, visit our Everything Mainstream page.