Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

Two years ago I reviewed Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Although I thought it was well written, thought provoking and terribly clever, I did not like the book. I felt the trials meted out to Ursula became torturous after a while; when reading about her, I felt sadistic, a feeling I did not enjoy. Hence, when the companion book to Life After Life (which was made very clear is not a sequel or prequel but a complementary novel) was released this year, I was reluctant to pick it up. However, I do love Kate Atkinson and I really hate not having read a book that everyone else has (would I jump off a cliff...) so I borrowed it from the library. It sat on my shelf, borrowed but unread, for about two months until I got an email from the library telling me someone else had requested it and asking that I return it in three days. I reluctantly picked it up and then, within an hour, started kicking myself quite hard in the shins for waiting so long, because this book is excellent.

Like Life After Life, this book does not follow a linear narrative. However, unlike Life After Life, which explored parallel realities, where the different actions of the characters affected that particular reality but were wiped out when Ursula died and was reborn again, A God in Ruins sits within one reality only (thank God). Instead of moving between universes, the story moves back and forth along the lineage of Teddy - Edward Todd - and his parents, children and grandchildren. Broadly, Teddy, who was his mother Sylvie's best boy, goes to war, becomes a pilot, returns from war, marries Nancy, with whom he has Viola, who herself has two children, Sunny and Bea. Although Teddy is central to the story, Viola and Sunny both have chapters told from their perspectives. The story spans Teddy's entire lifetime of 90 years, which combined with the multiple perspectives results in a really full, fascinating exploration of a family and the effect of two terrible wars.

Given that I had to return the book to the library in three days, I read this book much more quickly than I wanted to. It is really beautifully written, with the kind of language that I wanted to savour and take my time with. At the centre of the story is Teddy, who every loves. He promises himself that if he survives the war, if he has an "after", he will be kind. And he is, but kindness and love don't necessary look like he thought they would. Like Life After Life, there is great loss and love throughout the book. In a testament to the power of this book to evoke feeling, for the first time in a long time, I cried while reading a book. I recommend this book strongly: five stars.

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