I 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.