Pity the poor sequel—especially one that comes in the wake of a literary marvel like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (which this magazine anointed the best novel of 2013). Maybe that’s why A God in Ruins has cautiously been dubbed a “companion piece,” even though the book stands, often stunningly, on its own.
Life’s tale of Ursula Todd, an otherwise ordinary British girl with the singular ability to be reborn again and again in her own skin, came off like a metaphysical magic trick—not only tapping into heady notions of fate and free will but repeatedly waving a wand over crucial moments in 20th-century history. Ruins turns its focus to her baby brother, Teddy, who (in this iteration) survives WWII and goes on to marry his childhood sweetheart, deferring dreams of vagabond bohemia for a small-town newspaper job, a suburban tract house, and the quiet labor of parenthood.
In some ways, though, he’s never returned from the war, haunted by the unfathomable loss of millions—their names “written on water. Or scorched into the earth. Or atomized into the air. Legion”—and unsure of what to do with a future he never expected to live to see. His daughter, Viola, doesn’t care. A peevish little girl who grows up to be a sulky, self-righteous pseudo-radical, she thinks chakras are good and war is bad and “anyway it was years ago.” But he is still a beacon of hope to her own two children, Sunny and Bertie, tiny hostages of their mother’s various experiments in communal living, whole-grain casseroles, and clueless politicking.
Viola’s the sort of insufferable character that could sink a lesser book, and readers of Life may wish Ursula would swoop in and conjure another one of her parallel universes—one where Teddy pens poetry and drinks kava under the Spanish sun, and Viola is a mirage that never was. But Atkinson writes the way LeBron dunks or Stephen Hawking theorizes; she can’t help being brilliant, whether she’s describing a sloshed bachelorette party or a midnight bomb raid over Bergen. Ruins never quite reaches Life’s dizzying, otherworldly heights. Instead, it’s more like actual life: sometimes dreary and disappointing and often not what we dreamed it would be at all, but still absolutely worth taking on. B+
MEMORABLE LINES “F-Fox fell with Teddy still inside her, a blaze of light in the dark, a bright star, an exaltation, until her fires were finally quenched by the waves. It was over.”