Ursula Todd, born first on a snowy night in the English countryside, is finding herself the victim of a fairly serious case of déjà vu. So alarming in fact that Ursula’s parents take her to the office of psychiatrist when she is ten years old where the good doctor first suggests that Ursula may be remembering other lives. In Life After Life, the first of Atkinson’s two companion novels centered around the Todds of Fox Corner, that is precisely what is happening.
Life After Life revolves around those of Ursula. By my reading, Ursula seemed to live longer each life and always died in a different way. At first, instinctively avoiding the pitfalls that had brought about her untimely demise and in her later lives with a seeming knowledge that she had actually been there before and knew that the maid should not be allowed back in the house after visiting London where the flu epidemic was raging or how to avoid the horrid American schoolboy intent on destruction.
The reader remembers what had happened the last life, and though shades of familiarity remain, incidents chance, outcomes reverse, even individuals appear with altered aspects and personalities. It may sound confusing. It is not. It is enthralling. It’s one of those books you rush through to see what happens next and then slow down at the end to savor, hoping to postpone finishing it for another day.
Atkinson herself says: “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about’ itself) but if pressed I think I would say Life After Life is about being English (on reflection perhaps that’s what all my books are about). Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.” http://www.kateatkinson.co.uk/dnld/resources/LifeAfterLifeNotes_848fc161a7df.pdf
In addition to Ursula, there is an older Todd sister, the pragmatic Pamela, and three boys, only one of which holds much interest: Teddy. Teddy is the charming young boy who becomes the subject of Aunt Izzy’s series of books in Life After Life. And ultimately, the primary subject of A God In Ruins.
Teddy becomes a bomber pilot, adopts a dog named Lucky who appears throughout Life After Life, and at the end of that book, goes out on a raid and is presumed dead. A God In Ruins is Teddy’s more-traditionally-told tale. Less than two short years after the publication of her monumental Life After Life, Atkinson published A God in Ruins. Aside from the breathtaking feats of narrative derring-do she pulls off in both novels, simply consider the fact that the first is 544 pages and the second 480.
In A God in Ruins, Teddy is one of the 10% of RAF bombers who come home from the war. He marries his childhood
British flight crew, courtesy BBC.
companion Nancy Shawcross from just down the road and the two have one child, who despite the parents love for one another, is just about the most horrible character I remember reading: Viola. Mean, vain, narcissistic, closed-minded, sharp-tongued, vengeful. Viola is a horrible daughter to Teddy and a more horrible mother to her children Sun (Sunny) and Moon (Bertie), born out of wedlock and in a commune.
Atkinson’s well-researched and breathtaking descriptions of the bombing runs, frankly had me at times skipping pages. It’s gruesomely accurate.
The New York Times said:
A God in Ruins is a “sprawling, unapologetically ambitious saga that tells the story of postwar Britain through the microcosm of a single family, and you remember what a big, old-school novel can do. Atkinson’s book covers almost a century, tracks four generations, and is almost inexhaustibly rich in scenes and characters and incidents. It deploys the whole realist bag of tricks, and none of it feels fake or embarrassing. In fact, it’s a masterly and frequently exhilarating performance by a novelist who seems utterly undaunted by the imposing challenges she’s set for herself.” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/books/review/kate-atkinsons-a-god-in-ruins.html
In tandem, the books would be a likely even more powerful read, with one reinforcing the other, a sly reminder here, a nod there. Perhaps my project for Summer 2016.
Taken together, “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins” present the starkest possible contrast. In the first book, there’s youth and a multitude of possible futures. In the second, there’s only age and decay, and a single immutable past. This applies not only to the characters, but to England itself, which is portrayed over and over as a drab and diminished place. The culprit is obvious — it’s the war itself, “the great fall from grace.” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/books/review/kate-atkinsons-a-god-in-ruins.html
It would be conventional, I suppose, to come up with some Victory Garden food, or even some community husk/commune granola. However, I think my menu will be left-overs. Particularly for Life After Life. Or not so much left-overs as the reappearances of food a la Ursula.
Twice Baked Potatoes
Roast Beef Sandwiches — made from homemade roast beef
Bubble and Squeak — because it’s both English and leftover!
1/2 medium head cabbage, sliced
3 slices bacon, diced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 cup cubed cooked ham
1 tablespoon butter
3 cups potatoes – baked, cooled and
1/2 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper to taste
||In a medium saucepan, cook cabbage in a small amount of water for about 5 minutes, or until tender. Drain, and set aside.
||In a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, cook bacon and onion until onion is soft and bacon is cooked. Add ham, and cook until heated through. Add butter, then mix in the cooked cabbage and potatoes. Season with paprika, salt, and pepper. Cook until browned on bottom, turn, and brown again.
I also make a deconstructed bubble & squeak for my Boxing Day parties where I buy those tiny little smokies sausages and brown them in the oven until they are good and nearly crunchy. And I bake tiny new potatoes until they are tender, then skewer one sausage and one potato each on a toothpick. I’ve had native Brits tell me it’s their favorite Boxing Day treat ever.
We’ll Meet Again, a compilation album by Britain’s chief war songstress Vera Lynn, contains all of the classics including, We’ll Meet Again, The White Cliffs of Dover, Traveling Home, Dream, Harbour Lights, As Time Goes By. But it doesn’t include her famous song, There’ll Always be an England and you might want to include that.
Ursula – Felicity Jones
Aunt Izzie – Keira Knightley
Teddy – Eddie Redmayne
Nancy — Emma Watson
Happy Reading & Eating!
Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius.