Saturday, May 30, 2015

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins is a "companion" work to Atkinson's wonderful Life After Life, picking up the story of Teddy Todd, the lovable brother of Life After Life's protagonist, Ursula. A God in Ruins does not adopt the same conceit as Life After Life, but it does play with time, moving from Teddy's wartime experiences as an RAF bomber pilot to childhood experiences and his post-war life. (Since my dad was a bomber pilot in the Pacific Theater, I found the descriptions of bombing runs both fascinating and harrowing.) We also see some events from the perspectives of Nancy, Teddy's wife (and "childhood sweetheart"--a descriptor he despises), their execrable daughter Viola (an author described as "almost as good as Jodi Picoult"), and their two damaged grandchildren Sunny and Bertie.

The war years were central to Teddy's life, and Atkinson manages to laud the courage of the bomber crews (a large percentage of whom did not survive the war) while raising questions about the brutality of the RAF bombing attacks on civilian targets in German cities. While Teddy was a leader who won numerous medals for bravery in his military career, his post-war life is small. He marries Nancy, whom he loves but is not in love with, never experiencing great passion. He retreats to York and has a quiet life as a journalist, writing a homey nature column. When Nancy dies, he struggles to be a good father to Viola, though the two are never close and Viola is more of a trial than a blessing. Her own children, especially her son Sunny, are damaged in ways so incredibly sad as to be nearly unbearable. That Teddy might have been a different person had the war not intervened seems both obvious and unclear.

Atkinson refers often to events in Life After Life in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes perplexing. At various points throughout the book, I tried to figure out which of Ursula's many lives was reflected in this narrative, but in her Author's Note, Atkinson describes it as an "unwritten" life, which relieved my anxiety (while simultaneously somehow irking me--with all those lives, you had to create still another?). The Author's Note, by the way, is the most interesting such appendage I can remember reading, with Atkinson talking about the writing of this book and about fiction broadly (not everyone agrees: New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin called the note "churlish"). I've already listened to it twice and am thinking about giving it another go before taking the book off my iPod.

A God in Ruins has a surprise ending that will likely enrage some readers; however, it allows Atkinson to nudge readers into questioning their assumptions about fiction, which is her intent (I think). Although I didn't love the surprise, the ending was still redeemed by the book's last line: "But please stop reading now" (Teddy to Ursula, who is reading aloud from one of their Aunt Izzy's Augustus books, in which the main character is based on Teddy). I could quibble about a few things in this book, but overall I enjoyed it immensely.

Favorite passage:
There was a hand-written sign attached to the shelf that said, "Please, dear friend, leave these books in the condition that you found them," which was ridiculous as no book could ever be left in the condition that you found it in because it was changed every time it was read by someone.

Literature had fuelled her childhood fantasies and convinced her that one day she would be the heroine of her own narrative.

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