by Jill Kronstadt
The opening line, “I exist!” uttered by the embryonic Ruby Lennox at the start of Kate Atkinson’s 1995 novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum could easily encapsulate the 20 years and nine novels that have followed Atkinson’s tumultuous debut. Written in the midst of self-reinvention after Atkinson failed the oral defense of her doctoral dissertation on postmodern American short fiction, Behind the Scenes garnered effusive praise—until it unexpectedly edged out Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh for the Whitbread (now Costa) Prize.
In a biting takedown of the British press coverage of Atkinson’s coup, Hilary Mantel wrote: “On the day after Kate Atkinson’s first novel won the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian’s headline read: ‘Rushdie makes it a losing double.’ . . . But read on. ‘A 44-year-old chambermaid won one of Britain’s leading literary awards last night.’” Thus Atkinson—middle-aged, female, and working in the service industry—embodied a trifecta that made her a target for sexism. “So would she have a vast bosom, varicose veins, a vengeful sniffle?” Mantel quipped, and went on to describe attacks worthy of conservative coverage of Hillary Clinton:
The London media descended on Atkinson. A man from the Daily Express asked her to explain what Post-Modernism was; Richard Hoggart, chairman of the Whitbread judges, said that Atkinson had written a Post-Modern novel, but might not know it. . . . (She did the whole thing absent-mindedly, perhaps, while polishing brass doorknobs.) The Daily Mail sent a woman who found the author ‘pale, rather pimply, her hair unwashed.’ Atkinson’s private life was probed. She was found to be divorced, with two children, and happy with that arrangement. She was dubbed ‘anti-family’, and abused accordingly. Julian Critchley, one of the Whitbread judges, wrote an article in which he blamed the ‘Corps of Lady Novelists’ for her victory.
Arguably, critics might have more readily embraced the cliché of a failed novelist who becomes an academic than rallied behind a failed scholar who becomes a successful novelist, especially one who is also female and audacious. But since Atkinson’s debut, four of her novels have gone on to win major awards. She has been named a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Her series of four suspense novels featuring the reluctant detective Jackson Brodie was made into a BBC drama. Her 2013 bestseller Life After Life’s accolades included the Costa Book Awards Novel of the Year, the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Literature, the UK Independent Booksellers Book of the Year, the USA Indies Choice Book of the Year, and being voted Waterstones UK Author of the Year at the Specsavers National Book Awards. Anyone in 2015 who questions whether Atkinson deserves these honors is rightfully quiet about it.
Atkinson has revealed little about her personal life since her debut. At least one interviewer wrote of being told not to ask Atkinson about her family. She was born in York, the only child of parents who had a shop that sold medical supplies, and when she was 30, she learned that her parents weren’t married at the time. Atkinson now lives in Edinburgh at an address she does not disclose. Her grandfather survived World War I, only to be killed by a random explosion in 1931. She has been married twice and has two daughters, and she met both her husbands at the University of Dundee but is currently unmarried, and, according to one interview, now spends a lot of time with her adult daughters and her grandchildren.
It is tempting to try to tease out more of Atkinson’s biography from the character details and themes that recur across different novels. As Sarah Lyall points out in a 2013 profile for The New York Times Magazine, “The awkward reality under the carefully arranged façade is a theme that Atkinson often returns to in her plots.” In several novels, she features major or minor female characters who hang onto adolescence well into their forties, exasperating family members with requests for emotional and financial support. In both Life After Life and her newest novel, A God in Ruins, the most gallingly needy of these female characters have late, lucrative careers as bestselling novelists—perhaps echoing Atkinson’s own? It’s hard to say. Drug-addled, volatile male philanderers who father children and mistreat or ignore their partners, missing young girls, patient and loving older men, unflappable and straight-talking sisters, mothers who lack—sometimes greatly lack—motherly love, and women who have satisfying relationships but remain happily single also recur in several different novels.
Many of Atkinson’s characters also have supernatural qualities it’s safe to assume are not autobiographical. Ruby Lennox, the first-person omniscient narrator of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, speaks directly to the reader from the moment of conception; the protagonist of Human Croquet travels in time, and most famously, Life After Life’s Ursula Todd lives her life again and again in half-remembered (re)incarnations. Even so, Atkinson makes her characters simultaneously archetypical, painfully familiar, and flawed. As these characters have flailed awkwardly through their own fictional lives, Atkinson has declared her own creative existence over and over again, most recently with A God in Ruins.
Life After Life, which Atkinson once pronounced “my best book and it’s the best thing I’ll ever write,” tells and retells the life of Ursula Todd, the third of five children in a family whose life spans two world wars. The Todd family consists of five children: the opportunistic and ruthless Maurice, the wryly observant and unflappable Pam, Ursula, good-looking and sensitive Teddy (later to become the protagonist of Ruins), and the youngest, Jimmy. Their parents are Hugh, a quietly decent banker, and Sylvie, who is cultured, sometimes acerbic, and indifferent to all her children but Teddy, with whom she and everyone else is infatuated.
The novel’s principal conceit is that Ursula can use her past lives as rehearsals for successive ones, so as to improve on the original. In her various iterations, Ursula dies in childbirth, survives childbirth but drowns at five years old, falls out a window to her death while trying to retrieve a toy, dies several times in the 1918 flu epidemic, and survives an illegal abortion only to be beaten to death by an abusive husband—all just to live long enough to die repeatedly during the Blitz. Each section ends with “Darkness falls” or a variation, until the pattern is so established that Atkinson can add with ironic shorthand after one inevitable death, “Darkness, and so on.” As Atkinson says of the repeated deaths in an interview with NPR:
She dies a lot in the first third of the book, but I would say in the second two-thirds of the book she actually does very little, until we get to the blitz. She has a whole cascade of horrible deaths in the blitz. But after we’ve set the pattern I think there’s less of that. So it changes, it alters. Sometimes it’s very sad; sometimes it’s poignant; sometimes it’s rather offhand, I think.
Eventually Ursula gains a dim awareness of past calamities: “[s]he knew what someone was about to say or what mundane incident was about to occur—if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.” Before long, she begins to act on what seem like intuitions, floundering to intervene in some way that will change the outcome(s), one of which is that Teddy’s plane is shot down in a firestorm, leading to a cascade of quieter family tragedies.
Teddy seems to function in Life After Life more as a symbol of a lost idyll than as a fully-drawn presence. He is a silhouette without features, delineated by the affection of others. Loved fiercely by his mother and sisters, everyone’s favorite, Teddy is the wholesome patriot for whom wars are fought.
In A God in Ruins, Teddy improbably survives the firestorm and instead suffers the banalities of a life so stalwartly ordinary that I actually found myself wondering whether a sudden and fiery end would have been preferable to the slow decay of old age. The different versions of the same story in Life After Life—whose endings in death are inevitable, changed only in a few details—manage to whip up a propulsive energy that reads like suspense, as well as an optimism that each ending will build on the one before it. Ruins, on the other hand, with a 90 year-old former war hero as the central character, is all about un-building. In interviews about Life After Life, Atkinson implies that she meant to begin the new novel with Teddy dying in a nursing home and then move backwards in time. She ultimately abandoned this structure, but retrospection still dominates the plot of Ruins, in which nearly everything has already happened and been endured. While this framework works thematically and philosophically, it has a deflating effect on the plot, especially when held up against the open-endedness of Life After Life. On the other hand, this structure mirrors Teddy’s problem of what to do with a life he didn’t expect to have.
Atkinson was born in 1951, and though she had three uncles who fought and a grandfather who was killed in World War II, the war was barely mentioned in her household. As Atkinson describes it, she grew up feeling that, being born after WWII, she had missed “something terrible and tremendous:”
But I think with the blitz, I think it’s such an intense period—I forget how many days, it’s 57-58 days—of continuous bombing. . . . [i]f I could choose a period to go back to I think I would like to live through the blitz because you do read so many accounts of people who say they were living their lives at such an intense pitch that it was a completely different way of living. And to be so near death, as well, must have—you know, to be in touch with a constant fear of death or experience of death in others, I think that must have really changed people.
The title A God in Ruins alludes to a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, which Atkinson includes in the epigraph: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” The new novel has been billed as a “companion” rather than a sequel to Life After Life, which sounds like a euphemism for a relationship without a name. After a few sections recounting some of the events from Life After Life from different points of view, the novel hops around in time and perspective, but roughly pieces together Teddy’s trajectory from little boy to war hero to widower to grandfather and old man. At first, Ruins seems to promise that readers will find out which version of Ursula’s life was the “true” one, if there is such a thing.
As a young man in prewar days, Teddy sits in cafés and scribbles poetry, all of which turns out to be dreadful. When war breaks out, he finds identity and purpose as an RAF pilot. Atkinson has done exhaustive research here, from life on base down to the various models of Teddy’s Halifaxes and what it felt like to fly them; at one point Atkinson winks to the reader in a scene where Teddy bores his fiancée Nancy with talk of mechanical details.
He decides to volunteer for a second tour, in spite or maybe because of the grim odds that only around half the pilots survived each tour, and by sheer attrition he becomes one of the most experienced pilots—a dubious fate at best:
The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was. The only place he cared about was the inside of a Halifax, the smells of dirt and oil, of sour sweat, of rubber and metal and the tang of oxygen. He wanted to be deafened by the thunder of her engines, he needed to be drained of every thought by the cold, the noise, and the equal amounts of boredom and the adrenalin. He had believed once that he would be formed by the architecture of war, but now, he realized, he had been erased by it.
He marries Nancy, a mathematician who served as a codebreaker during the war, whom he loves but with whom he is not in love. He becomes as dreadful a teacher as he was a poet, and eventually he walks out of the classroom and immediately lands a newspaper job writing a stodgy nature column under a previous writer’s pen name, and later acting as editor.
In Ruins, Atkinson’s rendering of Teddy’s postwar existence is nearly as ruthless in its own way as her violent images of the Blitz in Life After Life. Teddy and Nancy struggle to have a child and then, after a difficult birth, produce pathologically self-indulgent Viola. When Viola is very young, Nancy dies of cancer. As an adult (I use the word “adult” loosely here), Viola shacks up with an unstable addict, lives on a commune, and gives birth to two children she never even pretends to love: a daughter, Bertie, and a miserable teenage son, ironically named Sunny, whom she shuttles off for abuse by his father’s Dickensian parents. Ursula and Pam die of age-related ailments. Teddy breaks a hip and forges a bond with both grandchildren. After Dominic’s death, Viola writes novels based on distorted versions of her own past, quoting to herself her own interviews to bolster her sense of grievance and using some of her writing income to commit Teddy to a series of nursing homes in hopes he’ll die more quickly.
In her interview with Lyall, Atkinson made the case that Life After Life was more a war novel than a family novel, saying that families give her “a very handy cast of characters.” However, in a different interview for Chatelaine, she also observes,
You are constantly astonished by the levels of aggression that occur between siblings, that sibling to-and-fro that goes on, which is probably both therapeutic and a fantastic learning experience. But as an outsider, as an only child, when you have no experience of that, it’s horrifying!
In A God in Ruins, Atkinson makes the family dynamics (principally between Viola and her children, and especially compared with Teddy and Ursula’s idyllic childhood at Fox Corner) nearly as horrifying as the Blitz.
On its surface, the structure of Life After Life seems to follow a path from least desirable (death after only a few moments of life) to most desirable (assassination of Hitler and less war trauma). It can also be read as a collection of parallel possibilities rather than as a process of revising history butterfly wing by butterfly wing. For me, the novel didn’t spiral toward a conclusion; instead, it spun away from its beginning like the branches of a tree. Life After Life is at least as much a virtuosic display of metafiction as it is speculative. Atkinson also offers readers an x-ray of an imaginative process that discards the “fiction as truth” model in favor of one in which fiction is a game, whose object is to take a story with an identical beginning and ending, and then tell it in as many ways as possible. A God in Ruins takes the opposite approach, in which possibilities grow narrower and more prescriptive. Teddy’s memories of the RAF, the most vivid of the novel, seem far more real than the ensuing decades.
In a scene in Life After Life, Ursula observes, “Time isn’t circular. . . . It’s like a . . . palimpsest.” If Life After Life is a palimpsest, each new story overwriting the last, A God in Ruins is more like a stone tablet on which nothing can be erased. Teddy and Nancy, heroes in war, stumble over war experiences they want to share with each other, but don’t. Atkinson manages to wrest some tenderness from this material, especially through the relationship between Teddy and his grandson Sunny, who with Teddy’s help manages to survive childhood and adolescence.
Ultimately the realism that prevails through most of Ruins offers subtler pleasures than the more pyrotechnic and playful Life After Life. Darkness falls for Teddy just as relentlessly as for Ursula, but far more slowly, leaving plenty of time, once the bombing is done, for the heaven and hell of battle and heroism to go back to being other people.
Jill Kronstadt’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House Flash Fridays, Moon City Review, The Los Angeles Review, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. She is currently one of four semi-finalists for the Vestal Review 2014 Flash Fiction Award.
Jill Kronstadt’s previous features: Very Like a Dog: David Wroblewski and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, You’ve Come a Long Way, Lady James, Ego and Eros: Kate Chopin, Redefining the Female Protagonist, The Wolf Will See You Now: L. Annette Binder’s Rise, Fugue States: Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light