My proof copy of A God in Ruins says ‘What if the new Kate Atkinson were even better than the last…’. A bold claim since her previous novel was the extremely readable and beautifully constructed Life after Life. It’s hard to imagine anything living up to that, and to suggest that a new book might is rather setting it up for a fall.
I don’t think A God in Ruins is as good as Life After Life.
It is however still a very good book. If I’d read it in isolation, I’d probably be raving about it. Atkinson is an excellent writer, she could make the back of a cereal packet compelling reading (there’s an internet meme in there somewhere – author’s cereal blurbs), but with Life after Life the structure was so special. Its ‘sliding doors’ narrative gave Life after Life additional depth. The layers of story from different realities, intersected with one another, building up into a glorious three dimensional whole. A God in Ruins is a more conventional single reality narrative. The timeline jumps about but the versions of the main characters stay the same.
A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Life after Life, following Teddy, Ursula’s beloved brother. The story follows Teddy’s life, focusing mainly on his time as a bomber pilot during World War Two and as a declining pensioner; the god in ruins. The first hundred pages had me worried, perhaps it was the lack of artifice in structure, but the story felt pedestrian and uninteresting. It was only once the war began in full, that I started to find my way into the novel. The chapters change time-frame switching from Teddy’s modern life back from the war. We see the young wing commander, a talismanic hero among men, and his more prosaic family life.
Teddy and his wife settle into a sedate country life at odds with life in the war. The many children they hoped for don’t arrive; only one, Viola. Teddy and Viola struggle to bond from the beginning and this sets the course for a troubled relationship. Atkinson sets up an interesting juxtaposition of Teddy’s life of privation and courage during the war and Viola’s essentially selfish quest for inner peace, living on a commune as a hippy. I’d never before considered how children of the sixties and seventies may have looked to the war-scarred generation above them, and Atkinson portrays well the uneasy interaction between them.
Viola produces grandchildren, who get along much better with their grandfather than she ever did. As such, A God in Ruins becomes a generational, family saga, not usually my cup of tea. Gradually however the novel began to exert a grip over me. Whilst the war passages vivdly portray life as bomber pilot and the grinding despair brought by being surrounded by death, it was the modern day chapters that captured me most.
As I grow older, I begin to feel my own sense of the world out-pacing me. I can already see that I may outlive my own usefulness. This is something that never occurs to a thirty-year old, but now the other side of forty, with aching knees, it’s an uncomfortably real proposition. Teddy, a hero long ago, waits out his life in homes and sheltered accommodation. This again is all too close to the bone. As my parents age, how they are going to see out their days? The worst ever friction in their relationship with me, and with each other, has been caused by them railing against the onset of years. My Dad has Parkinson’s and it raises a set of challenges that cannot be conquered by staying at home indefinitely.
A God in Ruins, portrays the terrible shrinking of life that marks old age. Viola, never the most attentive of children, becomes a monster. Yet, I fear there is a little of Viola in all of us. I love my parents very much, but all too often I find them a nuisance; a problem to be dealt with. I know that one day, possibly, (hopefully even – the alternative is an early death), I will be the same situation. A burden to my boys, who love me very much, but struggle with all the things in their life, without their aged P making things even more complicated. Atkinson suggests the salvation may be grandchildren. Teddy’s later life affected me strongly and reminded me to to try to make a little extra time for my family, who one day will no longer be there.
I didn’t unreservedly love A God in Ruins. There was one chapter in particular that bordered on caricature, and felt uncharacteristically clumsy for Atkinson’s usual spot on observation. My wife felt the novel was in danger of slipping into an anti-war polemic. Whilst I rather liked its take on the futility of human warfare, her point is valid. The end of the novel throws a curve-ball, which I hadn’t seen coming. This has the discomfiting effect, of making the reader reappraise everything they’ve read. On the one hand this was frustrating, a literary trick too far, but on the other it’s no mean feat for an author to force a reader to re-evaluate everything they’ve read, and indeed their own lives in just a few short paragraphs.
I didn’t enjoy a God in Ruins like I did Life after Life, but a new Kate Atkinson novel is always something to be savoured and celebrated. The pair make an excellent whole and show why Kate Atkinson is the queen of accessible literary fiction.
Many Thanks to Alison at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book (my wife sends heartfelt gratitude too!)