Publication date: May 5th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical
In her new novel, A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson answers the question that arises when one is spared from death but others are not: Is my life worth it? In her previous novel Life After Life Ursula Todd is reborn back into her life for second and third chances to change history in World War II but rather than doing so on a global scale she opts for the life that allows her dear brother Teddy, a fighter pilot in the RAF, to live. Teddy is the focus in this companion novel and we follow him and his wife and child through their lives, in essence to see what Ursula’s decision has wrought. The novel goes as far back as the mid-1920s when Teddy is a boy to all the way up to 2012 as he lays in a nursing home, dying.
The title A God in Ruins is an apt one because, insofar as she can, Ursula plays God in Life After Life and Atkinson presents the reader with a mixed bag of results. Teddy is a good and decent man, one who fights heroically in the war but beyond him, were the lives that followed such that they outweighed Ursula’s other historical options? Atkinson seems to come down on the side of ‘no’ in crafting Teddy’s only child, Viola. She is deeply unlikable but without any of the complexity that makes such a character interesting. If she has more than one dimension it never appears and her attempts to blame the world and most especially her father for depriving her of her mother make the thought of surgery without anesthetic welcome. She is entitled, self-absorbed, ignorant, and rude.
She was the worst kind of liar—transparently untruthful and yet completely convinced of her ability to deceive.
If Atkinson’s sole purpose in writing her is to evoke strong feelings of dislike than she succeeded in the first paragraph.
Thankfully, Viola is just one of a far-reaching group of people who are of Teddy’s life and in touching him each and every one is touched by him. This is Atkinson’s forte because despite there being only one life per character in A God in Ruins there is a tremendous amount of movement in these lives. She makes an eel out of time and for as much as you try and grasp it it will wriggle out of your hands. The past slithers into the present back to the past and into the future in serpentine prose that would be a hopeless jumble without her skill. Despite this temporal speed, the novel has a very slow start and for some this will be a detriment. The plot had not hooked me by page 100 but the characters were so well-defined with their dry humor and wry British dialogue that I kept going, only to find myself ultimately pulled into their world. A world that flowed between the mundane nature of peacetime life and the uncertainty of life at all during the war.
I stated earlier that the title A God in Ruins could refer to Teddy’s sister Ursula, who essentially saves his life on a cosmic level, but Atkinson goes well beyond this by sizing the theme up from a single family to a world scale. With so much happening on so many levels the novel becomes highly individualized and will likely strike different people in different ways. The rapidly shifting timeline amongst the themes means that the ending, when it comes, is one that is emotionally eviscerating. Like war, there is simply no way to prepare for it and its outcome is devastating.