Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson


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.

Atkinsoatkinson-life_after_life-homen 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.”

  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.

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:

IMG_1497A 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.”

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.”


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

Turkey Curry

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
thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a medium saucepan, cook cabbage in a small amount of water for about 5 minutes, or until tender. Drain, and set aside.
2. 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[1] of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy[1] of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius.

Life After Life, by Jill McCorkle


     Author Jill McCorkle spent the weekend in Lexington, speaking to the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference and shepherding a group of 16 budding authors through a two-day workshop in how to “find the story.”  I was lucky enough to be among that small group; to sit with, talk with, learn from and laugh with the kind, gently Southern and very talented writer.  She shared with us how she found the story she wrote in Life After Life, a sweetly hopeful and melancholy tale of lives entwined in an assisted care facility.

    Life After Life takes the reader into the Pine Haven retirement center in Fulton, North Carolina:  a refuge for some of the residents and staff and a prison for others.  Rachel Silverman, a transplanted Yankee, stirs many a pot as does retired lawyer Stanley Stone.  Toby and Sadie comfort Abby, the child of a painful marriage, who likes to escape to visit the residents of Pine Haven.  Joanna, an employee of Pine Haven, gathers the stories of the residents in a central point.  Joanna’s mission having been given to her to “make their exits as gentle and loving as possible.”  She does, and thereafter collects the stories of their exits in her journal.

   Ms. McCorkle talked of visiting her own mother in a location similar to that of Pine Haven.  Of the hard truth that so much in such places is simply not nice, but staying in that facility willfully until some glimpse of humor displayed itself.  She mines the truth of the situation for gentle humor throughout Life After Life as well.  But in each life, a little rain must fall and as each residents’  story becomes known, the reader sees the tragedy as well as the comedy.

    One of my favorite characters was the character of Stanley Stone, who is suffering from dementia-turette’s syndrome and plays Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ vinyl recording of Whipped Cream “nonstop.”  He has the unfortunate tendency to walk into a room and make the most obscene outbursts.

Whipped-Cream-and-other-Delights-Herb-Alpert“You aren’t queer, are you, son?”  Stanley asked.  “Been a long time since I’ve heard of you getting a piece.”

    During her talk on Friday, Ms. McCorkle read a passage from what she called “Toby’s rant,” that is a good illustration of what the New York Times book review referred to as the “simple, often luminous moments this side of the great divide.”

“I am a human, a woman; I was an English teacher and a bit of an amateur writer myself, but I’ll tell you things went so far off course I just didn’t even know where I was anymore.  I think it was the beginning of the end, too.  What once was generous compassion for high school students with all their angst and crap going on turned into pure agitation and fury.  I didn’t get frustrated by who I am; I got frustrated by what they were reading and wanting to write about.  I said, you’re too smart for all this shit.  Dwarves and wizards and gnomes and vampires — big blue aliens with tails like monkeys.  I said what I wouldn’t give for a good old-fashioned story about somebody losing his or her virginity or getting an abortion — Grandma died and for the first time I knew I was mortal or what about the one where the boy doesn’t want to kill a deer, but Granddaddy makes him so he can be a man.  I was wanting to write something myself and it was dying to get out of my head but couldn’t’ find the door it was all so plugged up with that malarkey.”

    Life After Life offers multiple lives, voices and topics for discussion:  senior care, adultery, dementia, creativity, artistry and of course, aging.  And like Jill McCorkle, you will leave Pine Hurst with a dose of gentle humor to leaven the sorrow.

MENU  hot diggity

    Pine Hurst employee C.J. runs a hot dog stand.  The stand features special like a German Shepherd with onions and sauerkraut.  I can’t stand hot dogs though, blame Upton Sinclair, so I would serve:

Sweet Tea/Bourbon Cocktail

Muddle one sugar cube with 2 oz lemon juice in low ball glass

Add two ounces of tea and two ounces of bourbon

Shake with ice cubes and serve

North Carolina Barbecue 

Baked Potatoes

Sweet Potato Pie — my good friend Denise Smith shared this yummy recipe with me.

1 1/2 cup sweet potatoes

1 1/2 cup sugar

1/2 stick butter, at room temperature

1 egg

1 unbaked pie shell

Preheat oven to 350.  Boil sweet potatoes in large Dutch oven until knife inserted goes through with complete ease.  Peel sweet potatoes as soon as they are cool enough to handle.  Beat in electric mixer until smooth.  Add next 3 ingredients and mix well.  Pour into pie shell and make the top of the mixture as smooth as possible.  Cover with glaze and bake for one hour and ten mites or until pie shell is golden brown.


1 egg

1/2 cup melted butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Beat all ingredients together in electric mixer.  Pour over top of pie.


   Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!  Whipped Cream.  Actually that album is one of my favorite childhood memories.  I think my mom played it non-stop as well.  Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba . . .


This would be one heck of a tale to tell via film.  But I’ll do my best with a few of my favorite characters:

Stanley Stone:  Clint Eastwood

Rachel Silverman:  Barbra Streisand(!)

Toby:  Dame Judy Dench

Sadie:  Sally Field

Kendra:  Julie Bowen

   Thanks again to Jill McCorkle and happy reading!

mccorkle life