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That’s life

Kate Atkinson’s epic pair of books Life after Life and A God in Ruins are a triumph of fascinating story-telling in a mould-breaking style.

Geraldine Gardner

Geraldine Gardner


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That’s life

If you are a fan of Kate Atkinson, then you will love these two epic works, Life After Life and A God In Ruins, which grapple with 20th century life.

While each can be read in isolation, there is a connection through the characters and after reading both, you realise how one enhances the other. 

I’ll start with Life after Life, which centres round the life of Ursula Todd. While it might at first seem a little confusing, as the reader is made to read and reread different episodes in Ursula’s life as she dies then doesn’t die, it is actually an effortless read.

Ursula is stillborn. Ursula survives a few hours. Ursula lives. And so it goes on. Each phase of her life is punctuated with a full stop – her death. Then we are taken back to before that moment and she continues on her life journey. And the dying/not dying scenario doesn’t just happen to Ursula. There are other characters in the book who suffer the same fate and are usually saved by Ursula’s actions or someone else at the scene. This is not because Ursula is reliving the moment and so knows when to step in, it is just the way things turn out.

If that sounds a little strange, please don’t be put off. The writing is so brilliant that it soon becomes clear what is happening and you fall into the rhythm of the prose. As for Ursula and her family and the people she comes across along the way – what an amazing cast of characters.

Ursula comes from a loving family, an affable father, a much-younger and slightly regretful mother – who raise their children at Fox Corner, an idyllic country cottage. Maurice, the eldest, is pretty insufferable but Ursula’s favourite is younger brother Teddy.

Teddy is 25 when World War Two breaks out and so is destined to play a part in the conflict. He becomes a pilot and his  demise seems almost inevitable.

But then what if... and that’s where A God in Ruins comes in. This second book chronicles the life of Teddy Todd into old age. We see his destiny, warts and all, and feel an empathy for him, as things don’t quite live up to expectations.

His marriage to childhood sweetheart, Nancy, who lived next to him at Fox Corner, isn’t quite as romantic as he might have hoped – that’s not to say it wasn’t a loving relationship. They have one daughter, Viola. As they both came from large families, this is a little disappointing for them, but they put all their energies into her... and what an ungrateful child she is.

Unfortunately – and I’m giving nothing away here – Nancy does not live to see her daughter grow up and this heightens the uneasy relationship between Ted and Viola. She in turn has two children – Bertie and Sunny – who Teddy dotes upon and becomes a surrogate parent to.

The emotional roller-coaster of their lives is quite heartbreaking, especially Sunny, who is taken from Ted to live with his wealthy and austere paternal grandparents. The chapter covering this periods pulls at the heartstrings and you can’t help but feel for young Sunny, who is affected for the rest of his life by this enforced separation.

Ted’s old age is chronicled by moving from his home, to sheltered accommodation and eventually to a care home. You feel old age coming upon him and the inevitability of his destiny.

As with many of Kate Atkinson’s books, nothing is as it seems. She hints along the way at the conclusion she is heading towards, but when it comes it is quite a game-changer for the reader. I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say it alters your perception of Ted’s life and that of his offspring.

I’m not sure whether it worked for me. It is something I have had to ponder and sometimes I thing, wow that was brilliant and other times I feel rather let down.

They are still brilliant books, but although A God in Ruins has won more plaudits, my favourite is Life After Life. It set the bar and provided such an intriguing narrative. It also, in my opinion, enhanced the enjoyment of A God in Ruins, because you were starting from a point of familiarity and knew you were not following any ordinary journey.

As I said earlier you don’t need to read both books, each can be savoured in isolation, but I would recommend that you do. Many people may be familiar with Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie detective series of books, which are tremendously entertaining, but her other novels offer different challenges. With these two tomes, she has proved herself as one of the great contemporary literary talents.

In this epic pair of books, Atkinson has deconstructed the 20th century in a unique way, looking at the Second World War in Life after Life and the aftermath in A God in Ruins. They are novels that will stay with you longer after they are finished.

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