(This review was first published on the website Our Book Reviews here).
In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson brought us a tale of one life, Ursula Todd's, lived over and over again till it was "right". In A God In Ruins, she brings us just one life-time, that of Ursula's brother Teddy with all its ups and downs, happy memories, devastating sadness, youth, old age ....
Working out the odds as a World War II bomber pilot, Teddy didn't rate his chances of making it through to see the peace - so he found it strange to be picking up the pieces of his life and starting to plan for the future. The war continues to cast its shadow over him though - to cope, he developed a deep layer of stoicism, almost a numbness, to keep himself plodding on, accepting whatever was thrown at him - from bombs and machine-gun fire to the dreadful things he himself did and the random accidents that claimed the lives of friends. Scarred and numbed by his experiences and feeling a need to atone for his actions, Teddy decides his life will now be one of kindness, his own slight reparation for the horror of war, but those dreadful years are not shrugged off so easily and his relationships with wife, daughter and grandchildren are all affected.
Life After Life was a stunning, knock-me-for-six, sort of book and I'd wondered how on earth Kate Atkinson was going to follow it. Surely anything would seem tame by comparison, lacking in emotional clout? Well, the short answer is No! A God in Ruins is another absolute stunner.
Carefully and cleverly constructed, the story moves back and forth in time - to Teddy's childhood and his grandchildren's futures, sometimes revisiting events from a different angle - but always circling those formative, life-changing war-time years.
War novels seem to be rather the province of male authors - though why that should be I don't know - but Atkinson puts the reader there on Teddy's Halifax, dodging flak and enemy aircraft, experiencing the fear and adrenaline, the fragility of both life and aircraft; it's as good as anything I've read (and from childhood preferring my father's war novels to my mother's romantic fiction, I've read quite a few). There are certain incidents that sound a little familiar - for example from the film Memphis Belle - but something that surprised me was the occasional beauty of an air-raid seen from above - target indicators falling like red, gold and green fireworks or the twinkling lights of incendiaries - contrasting with the horror of killing those below.
There are subtle signs and hints throughout that the author is playing with the reader, indicators of what the eventual ending may be; the references to Life After Life, and the ever-present omniscient narrator who knows what will happen in the future well beyond the confines of this story, point towards the final twist. It's the sort of game that elsewhere, with different authors, I've objected to but this time I didn't mind at all - I'd been expecting the end, it felt 'right' and in many ways I'd have been disappointed if the story had ended in a more conventional way. As I read I felt completely immersed in the story - it doesn't matter at what level this is fiction - Teddy, his wife Nancy, daughter Viola, grandchildren Sunny and Bertie all felt completely real, all people I could care about and relate to.
The ending left me saddened and moved - an emotional roller-coaster seems a lazy description but that's exactly what this is.
About the reviewer
Mary Mayfield is an avid reader and blogger from Notts, now living in Derby. She loves everything from War and Peace to the Shopaholic series, by way of Virginia Woolf. Claim to fame? Grandma grew up next door to DH Lawrence! See Our Book Reviews Online.