A God in Ruins

God in RuinsI love seeing one of my favorite writers get the praise she deserves, but I’m missing the old Kate Atkinson, with her dark humor and goofy narrative voices. I miss having fun reading her books. A God in Ruins, like its companion Life After Life, is a very good book, but it’s not much fun.

A God in Ruins tells the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula from Life After Life. The approach here is entirely different from that of the earlier book (and you absolutely do not need to have read Life After Life to follow this). Whereas we saw multiple versions of Ursula’s life, here we dive deeply into Teddy’s one life.

Teddy’s life is defined by his time as a bomber pilot in World War II. The book skips around in time, showing Teddy at different phases of his life, struggling to exist in this new world, where he survived against all odds. His daughter, Violet, treats him with scorn. His grandchildren like him, but they’re often kept apart. And even though the Germans didn’t get him, old age certainly will.

In puzzling out why Atkinson chose to structure the novel as she did, with all the jumps back and forth in time, I’ve come to think that maybe we’re supposed to see that life isn’t a tidy narrative, with one event following naturally after the other. Something that happened 15 years ago might inform our reactions to something that will happen 25 years from now. I’m not sure, though. Maybe it’s just a gimmick. Maybe serious novels today are supposed to play around with time, so that’s what she does. I didn’t mind it, though. In fact, I liked being able to place Teddy as an old man right next to Teddy as a young pilot. It showed that his one life is all one life. The young man is the old man.

The book’s ending is another puzzle. As Teddy’s life comes crashing to an end, we see that a lot of our assumptions about what we were reading were false. The young man is the old man, but not in the way we might have assumed. I’m not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, it feels like a cheat, and a cliched one at that. But on the other, when I set this book next to Life After Life, it appears to be another way of getting at the same idea of how the consequences of one event spin out far beyond that event.

In his post-war life, Teddy often feels lonely and misunderstood. He has some nice moments with his grandchildren, but the overall tone of the book is somber, particularly during the post-war sections. The pre-war and even the wartime sections are livelier. In light of the book’s ending, this fact is particularly unsettling. What does it say about Teddy’s need to keep flying, long after he could have stopped? Also, I’m not sure what to do with some of the shifts in perspective that happen during the book, in light of the ending. I think we’re meant to see something here about how an imagined life is still a life, even if it isn’t real—or something about the multiple possibilities of life that all exist simultaneously until an event closes some of them off. Maybe it’s just about the fact that life is all possibility until it ends.

I’m still working out exactly what I think about this book. It’s beautifully written, although the narrative voice came across as rather cold to me, especially when set against Atkinson’s earlier work. The narration in Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Emotionally Weird isn’t nearly as controlled as this third-person voice, but it’s the exuberant narration that sets these books apart. The voice here is one I’ve encountered before, in endless numbers of books. That doesn’t mean it isn’t well done or that the book is not good, but other than the ending (which part of me sees as a gimmick), I didn’t see this as particularly original. Originality, however, is sometimes overrated, and a very good book of its type that hits all the right marks is still a very good book. Still, if this were my first Atkinson, I wouldn’t count her as a favorite author, just as an author I like a lot and would happily read again.

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14 Responses to A God in Ruins

  1. I agree–I preferred the early Atkinson. Loved “Human Croquet”

    • Teresa says:

      That’s the only one of her novels I haven’t read. I’m torn between wanting to read it very soon and wanting to treasure it up so that I always will have an early Atkinson left to read.

  2. lailaarch says:

    Atkinson is in my top 5 living authors. I came to her through the Jackson Brodie books, which I adore. I agree, this one is a somber read. But I loved Teddy so much – such a decent human being! The war/plane scenes were truly riveting and enlightening. I read that Atkinson wanted to write a WWII novel but realized it would be too large, so she ended up writing two novels instead. I love what she’s done with both of these books, but I admit that each one ripped me apart emotionally at times. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Her range is extraordinary.

    • Teresa says:

      I liked Teddy a lot, too, and Bertie and Sunny, especially after we got to know Sunny better. Violet seemed like a caricature of a terrible daughter and mother, I wish there’d been more nuance there. That seems like a real failing to me, especially in light of the reveal late in the book about her mother’s death and how she perceived it.

      And I agree with you about her range, and it’s a good thing that she tries different styles and voices. This just didn’t delight me the way her earlier stuff does, and Atkinson is better at provoking delight in me than just about anyone.

  3. Yes, yes, and yes! I love Atkinson’s writing – can’t imagine not loving it – but this didn’t have any of the energy or originality of her other, better books. It feels so restrained (one newspaper review I read praised the formality of writing) and, in theme and structure at least, so much like something any other writer could have created. I am so fond of Atkinson because she usually pairs beautiful writing with original insights; I always remember scenes or characters from her books years after I last read them – but I don’t think that’s going to happen with this one and that left me feeling so disappointed. It’s a good book but not the level of book she’s capable of.

    • Teresa says:

      This restrained style is so common in literary historical fiction these days (as is the time jumping), and although she does it extremely well, it didn’t feel like an Atkinson novel to me. Of course, a voice like Ruth Lennox’s wouldn’t make sense here, and the formal style probably suits Teddy’s story best. I just hope this style doesn’t become her default and that she gets back to playing more with voice and incorporating more humor.

  4. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of her books. I take it that you wouldn’t recommend this one to start with then… Thanks.

    • Teresa says:

      I suggest Behind the Scenes at the Museum to start. It’s historical and epic, like this, but the narrative voice is much more exciting. And Case Histories is also great if you like crime fiction.

  5. priscilla says:

    You have convinced me not to rush to pick this up (but certainly to read it eventually). I enjoyed Life After Life, but the descriptions of this one weren’t really compelling me, and after reading your review, I almost wonder if this wasn’t the case of having enough material about Teddy for that work that she could then turn into another book, keeping the same sort of exploration going about time and life? Nothing wrong with that, of course. For my part, I’ll finish the Jackson Brodie books before I get to this one.

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s like lailaarch said above–that she had lots of great WWII material and needed two novels to hold it all. And it is good, but I liked her other books much better.

  6. Deb says:

    It’s strange: I love her Jackson Brodie novels (and wish she’d write more), but I’ve never really been thrilled by her other books. I think the Brodies have so much more humor, and the philosophical elements, while present, are more neatly embedded in the characters’ personalities and interactions. Alas, I guess I’m a bit of a philistine.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, I wouldn’t say you’re a philistine for that! Her Brodie books are absolutely top-notch. I just love the voice and the sense of play in her other books and was glad to see her step away from Brodie for a while. But I hope this book isn’t a sign she’s turning toward more “serious” fiction. I’d rather see more Brodie books from her than more weighty historical fiction.

  7. So, my friend and podcast partner read the ending as — and other commenters be warned, here there be (ambiguous) spoilers!) — meaning that Teddy actually did die in the war, and the whole rest of the book, all those bits of his life that we have been reading about all along, never happened. Was that how it read to you too? Because I thought it was more like — you could have either. You could choose. Either it could be that Teddy fell during the war, this fast hard descent, or it could be that his decline was slower and more gradual, this smallish life he lived with Viola and the grandkids. Which I like! An ambiguous ending that leaves room for reader interpretation is my jam.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I read it the same way as Whiskey Jenny. I think the way the other characters felt the end coming meant that it was a real ending for everyone, that they would no longer exist because his death cut off that possibility. It occurred to me that maybe he’s like Ursula and getting ready for a reboot, but I’m not sure that fits with the way the two endings come together. Maybe it is more ambiguous, but I didn’t see it.

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