A God in Ruins

god in ruinsLike Teresa, I am a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s work. In 2016, I read Life After Life, and just fell into it: the fugue of Ursula’s repeated lives, returning and returning as she went along the same pathway with certain differences each time, captivated me. When I discovered that there was a companion novel, about Ursula’s brother Teddy, I put it on my list straightaway.

This book, like Life After Life, is nonlinear. Each part moves backward and forward to some new place in Teddy’s life. He has a happy, peaceful childhood (this reflects only some of Ursula’s experiences in the other book, of course — he can only be in one of her paths); an impossibly heightened and intensified wartime fighting in the air; a quiet marriage with a difficult daughter, Violet; beloved grandchildren (Sunny and Bertie) he gradually gets to know. We get Violet’s point of view at times, too, and the children’s, but the narrative loops back most often to the inside of Teddy’s head.

This is very much a book about silences. Even as a child, Teddy can’t, or isn’t permitted to, articulate the things he thinks about or desires. Later, during the war, the most emotionally important things go unsaid, sometimes as a matter of superstition — don’t say it or you’ll be the next to go — and sometimes as a matter of masculine norms. After the war, Teddy considers his experience — a memory that is unique, but aligns with the experience of an entire country — to be private. He doesn’t share it with his wife, and he doesn’t ask her about her experience at Bletchley. The book loops back and back to his wartime experiences, to the terror and the camaraderie and the deep grief and the surreal nature of the sudden death that can occur, but Teddy never speaks of it. Later, it seems to surprise him that his wife keeps the news of her devastating illness from him. Why would it? He’s a good, kind man, but theirs is not a marriage in which such things can be said aloud.

I liked a lot of pieces of this book. The wartime parts are extremely vivid, and I appreciated seeing Teddy’s family from his point of view. I also liked Sunny and Bertie (although there’s a chapter about Bertie that was nearly unreadably painful), and I was interested in the way their grandfather was reliable and comforting in a way that their mother couldn’t be. How did he learn to communicate with his grandchildren without ever really saying anything? However, the novel as a whole didn’t quite come together for me. Violet was too one-dimensional for my liking (despite the excuse we finally got for her behavior) — we kept getting new, outrageous examples of her mistreatment of Teddy, and it was too much, too Disney-villain, to be believable. It kept taking me out of the story in order to shake my head.

And then there was the ending. I really like it when authors play with form, when they juggle time or do something experimental with what a novel is supposed to be. However, when they have me invest in characters and events over hundreds of pages and then say “Ha ha, just kidding,” it’s not playing with form and it’s not making me think about anything. It’s just yanking a rug, and despite the meta-hints about aunts who write stories, it’s not particularly clever.

The ending did make me remember the beginning of Life After LifeNo breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky. The repeated image of the falling bird reminds me, of course, of Teddy, falling out of the sky as he continues to fly long after he should have stopped. In both of these books, the issue is not characters who affect the world around them, but a world — a war — that creates and shapes the characters living their lives, over and over, misunderstood and alone or happy and triumphant or sometimes, improbably, both at the same time. How do people choose? How do they live, in often-dire circumstances? How do they make connections, or fail to?

I didn’t enjoy A God in Ruins as much as I liked Life After Life, but Kate Atkinson is always worth reading. She is just so weirdly human — all of her books are, from Behind the Scenes at the Museum to her chaos-theory Jackson Brodie detective stories. I’ll always read what she writes, and I was glad about this one, too.

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8 Responses to A God in Ruins

  1. realthog says:

    A fine and persuasive review of a novel that, alas, I may not read: I read a couple of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels and wasn’t overwhelmingly gruntled by them.

    I was struck, though, by your description of her Life After Life, a book that I’ve seen around but never actually looked at. I hied me to Wikipedia for a more detailed outline of it.

    Have you ever come across Ken Grimwood’s 1986 novel Replay? It too has a Wikipedia entry, I’ve just discovered. The Atkinson novel sounds remarkably similar in underpinning, even if the life being relived is very different.

    (Disclosure: Years ago I wrote the foreword to a German edition of the Grimwood novel.)

    • Jenny says:

      I never have come across Replay, but I took a look at the Wikipedia entry, and it sounds quite good! In Life After Life, Ursula doesn’t have memories of her previous tries at life (though she has certain unexplainable “feelings,” which trouble other people, so she learns not to talk about them.) It’s a really interesting book, because Atkinson plays with that idea (also found in Groundhog Day) that you’re trying to get out of the loop and into a linear life.

      I’m sorry you didn’t like the Jackson Brodie mysteries — I loved them! I thought they were so well-written and the form of them was quite original.

  2. Peggy says:

    I like Kate Atkinson quite a lot and especially Life After Life, but this one was a disappointment.

  3. Teresa says:

    I had similar complaints as you about this book, but I agree that overall it’s worth reading. A lower-tier Atkinson is still better than a lot of what’s out there. I’ve gotten a little less annoyed about the ending, over time. I think she’s playing with some interesting ideas about connections and contingencies–how so many lives quite literally depend on what happens to Teddy in that moment. But the “it was all a dream” kind of trope doesn’t feel fresh, it makes the ending frustratingly gimmicky.

    She has a new novel coming out in September, another standalone World War II novel. Since I’ve read all her other stuff, I’m happy to have that to look forward to!

    • Jenny says:

      I never like that sort of ending, and even though she did it better than most, I found myself trying hard to find meaning in it more as an excuse for an author I like than because I really thought there was meaning in it. I did not like that part. There was plenty to enjoy and chew over in the book, though, even if it isn’t one of my favorites of hers. I’ll look forward to her new one as well!

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I’ll add my voice to those disappointed in the ending. As you say, she’s a wonderful storyteller, and though that kind of metafictional trick can be really exciting, it did feel like pulling out the rug from under us — for no real thematic reason. It felt like she lost faith in “just” writing a really fine novel and added a trick to make it “smarter” or something! (I wrote a more detailed objection in my review of the novel for Open Letters – I remember having quite a discussion with my co-editors during edits about my complaint and working hard to explain why this time it wasn’t OK with me!)

    • Jenny says:

      Your review was so good! I wish I had been able to explain as clearly as you did why this feels like playing smart-ass with the readers, when sometimes metafictional or formal tricks are so very good, especially with this kind of writer, or someone like Ali Smith. What a pleasure to read your explanation.

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