Reading Life After Life was such an odd and wonderful experience that I was curious about what Kate Atkinson would do in the companion novel, A God in Ruins. Rather than a post-structuralist and philosophical fictional biography, Atkinson gives us a meandering bildungsroman in A God in Ruins. It’s distinctly achronological. The narrative drifts from Teddy Todd’s childhood to his senior years, from his war years to his life as a not-very-good nature writer. There are frequent asides as the omniscient narrator tells us what happens to various characters in later years. While A God in Ruins is not a sequel to Life After Life, I kept looking for hints about Ursula, wondering if Teddy’s life had other versions we weren’t seeing.
For decades (centuries, probably) psychologists have argued whether genetics or environment are more powerful in forming a personality. A God in Ruins doesn’t settle this question, though it does give a lot of food for thought. In explaining Teddy’s character (in both senses of the word), the omniscient narrator tells us everything about Teddy’s family in an effort to show us why Teddy is the way he is. The narrator devotes a lot of time to Teddy’s mother, daughter, and grandchildren. Atkinson has to tread a careful line between providing enough information and too much; a writer has to stop before readers cry out for an editor’s red pen.
The structure of the book circles around the worst moments in Teddy’s life. We know in advance what they are: his years as a POW in Germany and his wife’s early death. We don’t know the details. As I read on about Teddy’s life before and after those moments, I started to see the experiences like layers of nacre around a grain of sand. Teddy is very much a stiff-upper-lip Englishman (much to his daughter’s annoyance and anger), but it helps see him through the long decades of his life.
I found A God in Ruins to be a very affecting read. When I closed the cover on the last page, I couldn’t jump immediately into another story. Instead, I went to bed and spent a long time thinking about what the book had to say about family and character. Some of the characters in the book are malleable; they adapt to life as it comes. Others seem to have their characters set from birth. Teddy’s daughter, Viola, for example, is described as being born on a wave of anger. She is a nightmare, only barely redeemable because she’s so oblivious of the damage she causes to those around her. As usual, the answer to the question of nature and nurture lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
I am fascinated by what Atkinson has created in Life After Life and A God in Ruins. Most life stories are told in chronological fashion, explaining a person or character’s life in terms of formative events and accomplishments. But does this really help readers understand the person? Perhaps the way to understand a person is to look at all the turning points in a person’s life and see how they would have coped with this event or that, as we did in Life After Life. Or perhaps the way is to see a person’s life, good and bad, laid out before us like a spiral around the worst moments in that person’s life.
Books like Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins make my little bookish soul quiver with delight and curiosity.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who are estranged from family members or who have otherwise complicated relationships with their family.