Review: A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson

A few weeks ago, I was mulling over what to do with my surprise windfall book token.  Well, then a very kind friend gave me another voucher for helping her apply for a job.  So instead of getting only one book, I was able to get two!  I settled on this one and The Versions of Us and feel very happy with my decision.  Thank you to everyone who gave advice.  For those unaware, A God in Ruins returns to the characters of Atkinson’s award-winning previous novel Life After Life, which told the many stories of Ursula Todd who is born, reborn and then born again, living her life over and over again and vainly attempting to improve her fate.  This time, Ursula’s adored younger brother Teddy takes the limelight, he who may or may not have gone down in flames as a an RAF pilot in World World II, so even before one even opens A God In Ruins, this feels like it will offer a tantalising glimpse into what exactly was the Todd family’s true fate.

Atkinson is clear that A God In Ruins is a ‘companion’ rather than a ‘sequel’ to Life After Life and if the latter was Ursula’s book, it is perhaps fitting that the one focusing on her brother should have the feel of a younger sibling.  Typically for Atkinson, the plot does not have a particularly linear feel, Teddy’s past and future are referred back and forth with no real clear idea of when the present might be.  Teddy does not have his sister’s gifts, he is just a man going about his business, doing the best he can – but yet rediscovering him in this book felt strange and he did not feel like the same golden boy that he had been in Life After Life.  His mother’s favourite child, his sisters’ favourite brother, Teddy was the symbol of a glorious lost generation and beloved of all.  Ursula Todd was protean, changing from one life to the next but Teddy had always seemed so steady.  Teddy had always been sweet-natured, open-hearted and he always adored Nancy Shawcross.  I had looked forward to reading more of their love story but yet even with Teddy’s survival, it seemed unable to run smooth – and indeed, very little of Teddy’s life did.

Kate Atkinson

Gifted with a miraculous salvation via two years in a prisoner-of-war camp, Teddy ploughs on with his life, marrying Nancy and fathering Viola and eventually becoming grandfather to Sunny and the warm-hearted Bertie.  Unable to articulate or explain his experiences as a bomber pilot, Teddy falls into silence and drifts through his life, unable to connect with those around him.  His daughter grows up bristling with resentment towards him, blaming Teddy for her mother’s premature death, living her life in deliberate opposition to the values Teddy tried to fight for, pushing the limit even as Viola teeters close to self-destruction.  Nobody writes female dissatisfaction quite like Kate Atkinson but this time it did feel as if the authorial boot was being kicked in rather as almost every passage concerning Viola was interrupted with bracketed snipes from Bertie (eg. when Viola remarks that she was a terrible mother, Bertie mutters, “What do you mean, was?”) It is hard to think of another character so obviously disliked by their creator as the wretched Viola.  Even when she becomes a writer, Atkinson dismisses her novels out of hand by citing praise from Mumsnet and making comparisons that she is ‘almost as good’ Jodi Picoult.  Still, when Viola muses that she might write a book about wartime, since war novels are always taken seriously, you cannot help but think that Atkinson is enjoying herself here.

The most successful part of A God In Ruins comes from the descriptions of wartime.  In Behind The Scenes At The Museum, there is also a chapter featuring Ruby’s cousin Edmund’s untimely death while serving as an RAF pilot but here Atkinson’s passion about the period truly shines through.  While Teddy post-war seems rather a drifter, there is no doubt that he is someone you would have wanted on your crew if you had to fight in the Blitz.  I felt too that here the disrupted chronology became most effective, as the painful contrast between Teddy in old age and Teddy the skipper made clear exactly what he had lived through.  When Bertie spots a previously-unseen photo of her grandmother, she asks what the mark near the top is and her grandfather replies that it must be a tea stain.  When we discover some time later what it actually was, I wanted to cry.  The stories and experiences that mark us, change us, scar us – so many of them do not translate into words.

(c) The Guardian

I felt that A God In Ruins lacked the focus which made Life After Life so powerful.  Atkinson seems to flirt with the question of what we should remember versus what we should forget.  The ghastly Viola throws a tantrum on discovering that her father refuses to use the coffee-maker she bought him as it was made in Germany, while Teddy quietly points out that the company involved assisted in the Holocaust.  Viola writes books with her own very skewed take on her childhood, yet never speaks to her father of the true root of her anger.  Sunny lives his life frozen in uncertainty and refusing to remember after a horrific incident in his childhood.  And Bertie – probably my favourite character in the novel.  Lacking an obvious formula such as in Life After Life, the end conceit was slightly unexpected – the prose was stunning in its simplicity and its beauty but it did not leave me with the same sense of completeness as at the end of Ursula’s story.

My problem with A God In Ruins came from Teddy himself – his character here seemed riven with inconsistencies.  The young man who skippered the plane so capably, who was such a calm and adoring grandfather to Sunny and Bertie – it is hard to reconcile him with the bland and dull man who was such an indifferent husband to Nancy.  In Life After Life, there was no lid to Teddy’s sorrow when Nancy was murdered as a child.  To see this boy transformed into a man who does not wish to get married feels unbelievable.  I was left uncertain about whether Atkinson was trying to highlight the tragedy of the lost generation of World War II or to imply that surviving a war meant consigning oneself to disappointment and the risk of fathering revolting offspring such as Viola.

At its core however, this was a warm-hearted book, full of the griefs that refuse to fade.  Atkinson’s personal feelings concerning war burns through in a very compelling way, for in A God in Ruins, we see how far humanity has strayed from the Garden, from the moment when first Cain killed Abel, and for every death in combat ever since.  Yet, Atkinson herself derides the determination of readers to get to the core of what a book ‘means’, so perhaps A God in Ruins is to be taken as a book to read and consider quietly – and to occasionally stop and remember the host of people unborn, unknown and unsung.  Fans of Life After Life are sure to find something here to enjoy, but A God In Ruins is not a stand-alone piece.

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A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Published by Random House on May 5th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 560
ISBN: 9781409043690

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5 thoughts on “Review: A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson

  1. I just read your discussion – that's fascinating! That sounds like fun to do about a book. I think that there were some excellent characters here and beautiful prose but for me it felt like an add-on rather than something that exists by itself. And although the author said in the afterword that people shouldn't fuss about what it means, I really don't know what the central point was. It doesn't matter to me though, her writing is so fantastic that it feels like a treat just the same.

  2. I loved LIFE AFTER LIFE – in fact it was my Book of the Year for 2014, so I was really looking forward to A GOD IN RUINS, But – sad to say – I just couldn't get into it.
    I'm glad to read your review since it explains what the book was about, Something I had trouble figuring out on my own, Boy was I disappointed,

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