Like Teresa, I am a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s work. In 2016, I read Life After Life, and just fell into it: the fugue of Ursula’s repeated lives, returning and returning as she went along the same pathway with certain differences each time, captivated me. When I discovered that there was a companion novel, about Ursula’s brother Teddy, I put it on my list straightaway.
This book, like Life After Life, is nonlinear. Each part moves backward and forward to some new place in Teddy’s life. He has a happy, peaceful childhood (this reflects only some of Ursula’s experiences in the other book, of course — he can only be in one of her paths); an impossibly heightened and intensified wartime fighting in the air; a quiet marriage with a difficult daughter, Violet; beloved grandchildren (Sunny and Bertie) he gradually gets to know. We get Violet’s point of view at times, too, and the children’s, but the narrative loops back most often to the inside of Teddy’s head.
This is very much a book about silences. Even as a child, Teddy can’t, or isn’t permitted to, articulate the things he thinks about or desires. Later, during the war, the most emotionally important things go unsaid, sometimes as a matter of superstition — don’t say it or you’ll be the next to go — and sometimes as a matter of masculine norms. After the war, Teddy considers his experience — a memory that is unique, but aligns with the experience of an entire country — to be private. He doesn’t share it with his wife, and he doesn’t ask her about her experience at Bletchley. The book loops back and back to his wartime experiences, to the terror and the camaraderie and the deep grief and the surreal nature of the sudden death that can occur, but Teddy never speaks of it. Later, it seems to surprise him that his wife keeps the news of her devastating illness from him. Why would it? He’s a good, kind man, but theirs is not a marriage in which such things can be said aloud.
I liked a lot of pieces of this book. The wartime parts are extremely vivid, and I appreciated seeing Teddy’s family from his point of view. I also liked Sunny and Bertie (although there’s a chapter about Bertie that was nearly unreadably painful), and I was interested in the way their grandfather was reliable and comforting in a way that their mother couldn’t be. How did he learn to communicate with his grandchildren without ever really saying anything? However, the novel as a whole didn’t quite come together for me. Violet was too one-dimensional for my liking (despite the excuse we finally got for her behavior) — we kept getting new, outrageous examples of her mistreatment of Teddy, and it was too much, too Disney-villain, to be believable. It kept taking me out of the story in order to shake my head.
And then there was the ending. I really like it when authors play with form, when they juggle time or do something experimental with what a novel is supposed to be. However, when they have me invest in characters and events over hundreds of pages and then say “Ha ha, just kidding,” it’s not playing with form and it’s not making me think about anything. It’s just yanking a rug, and despite the meta-hints about aunts who write stories, it’s not particularly clever.
The ending did make me remember the beginning of Life After Life: No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky. The repeated image of the falling bird reminds me, of course, of Teddy, falling out of the sky as he continues to fly long after he should have stopped. In both of these books, the issue is not characters who affect the world around them, but a world — a war — that creates and shapes the characters living their lives, over and over, misunderstood and alone or happy and triumphant or sometimes, improbably, both at the same time. How do people choose? How do they live, in often-dire circumstances? How do they make connections, or fail to?
I didn’t enjoy A God in Ruins as much as I liked Life After Life, but Kate Atkinson is always worth reading. She is just so weirdly human — all of her books are, from Behind the Scenes at the Museum to her chaos-theory Jackson Brodie detective stories. I’ll always read what she writes, and I was glad about this one, too.