It’s taken me about two weeks to figure out how to write about A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson’s follow-up novel to Life After Life. I finished A God in Ruins the same night I watched the finale to the long-running TV series The Good Wife. If you’re a Good Wife fan, you’ll likely have a strong opinion about how the series ended with a resounding and literal slap in the face. Later that same night I lay in bed eagerly finishing A God in Ruins, looking so forward to a satisfying conclusion to another story and cast of characters that I was now two books familiar with. When I came to the ending….oh, I was surprised! And felt like I’d received a literary slap — two slaps in one night!
In Life After Life, we follow the many lives of Ursula Todd, from her birth(s) to her final death(s). One of the most interesting characters in Ursula’s story is her lovable brother, Teddy, who serves in WWII as a bomber pilot and dies in the air campaign over Nuremberg — in Life After Life. But A God in Ruins reimagines Teddy’s life as if he hasn’t died in WWII. Teddy as an old man remembers his war service as a decorated bomber pilot (which is well-researched and some of the better parts of the novel), and we learn about his affectionate, but hardly passionate, marriage to childhood sweetheart Nancy, and their only child, Viola. Viola is an intensely dislikable character, but she gives Teddy two grandchildren, both of whom he adores and tries to do right by, although some of the most harrowing parts of the story are the trauma experienced by his grandson when Teddy fails to intervene adequately in Viola’s rotten excuse for parenting.
Atkinson does not use the same reincarnation trope in A God in Ruins that she did in Ursula’s book. But Atkinson definitely doesn’t tell a story in chronological fashion. We move back and forth between periods in Teddy’s life–as an old man reflecting on his life, family and career, and during his war service as a bomber pilot. Atkinson just can’t seem to help herself with time travel in her narratives. But, that said, she is really, really good at it. I never find her writing redundant or confusing and I gulped Teddy’s story down with great gusto. I won’t give away the ending that shocked me so, but I will only say that Atkinson didn’t give up all her literary tricks in this novel — she only saves them for last.
Whenever I am reading, I am particularly moved by stories that harken to my own experience, particularly if I am going through it the moment (one of the reasons I couldn’t continue with The Goldfinch). So it was when reading Ruins. My father is currently selling his house and trying to decide if he should move into an “independent living” situation or rent an apartment for a while. He is in the early stages of a dementia diagnosis, and I am recently very involved in his care and life decisions. My dad is still quite independent and functional as he cleans up and out his accumulated belongings prior to a sale and looks for new accommodations, but I have traveled to visit him three times this year to help out. His aging and the shadow of illness and the decisions that must be made have engendered a whole new aspect to our relationship. I would say my feelings for my dad are more tender than ever before, and his for me, though sometimes the process is frustrating and tiresome.
In Ruins, Viola helps Teddy clean up and vacate his house in preparation for his final move to an old age home. Viola is so biting and mean towards Teddy, who thinks but often doesn’t say what he feels about her criticisms. That chapter simply made me so sad and reminded me to be kinder and gentler to my dad, even when I am feeling frustrated by his decisions or find some of his current choices silly or unimportant. Perhaps Teddy’s story, getting inside the head of an old guy reflecting on his life, appealed even more to me for this reason.