A God in Ruins | Kate Atkinson | 2015 (7 May) | Doubleday | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
Two years ago, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life caused a stir that still continues. This week, its companion novel A God in Ruins is published. These two novels complement each other, you don’t need to have read one to enjoy the other, but if you have read Life After Life and you loved its tale of Ursula Todd, then I think there’s a good chance that you will be blown away by this new story of her brother Teddy. I enjoyed Life After Life very much, finding it extremely clever, but it engaged my heart far less than my head. I expected something similar from A God in Ruins. I was in for a shock. A God In Ruins turned out to be one of the most emotionally powerful novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have no hesitation in declaring that it will be a contender for my top novel of 2015. If you loved Life After Life, even if you just liked it as I did, you will adore A God in Ruins.
This review is not an easy one to write. While we are familiar with some of the characters who return from Life After Life, the emotional impact of A God in Ruins relies on you knowing as little as possible about it when you begin. So, instead of giving anything away, this review aims to tell you something of why it has left such a significant and, I am confident, lasting impression on me.
In Life After Life, Ursula Todd lives a succession of alternate lives, each one ending in a different way, time or place, but always resulting in yet another rebirth, a new life living another possibility. Her younger brother, World War II bomber pilot and countryside poet, Teddy, featured incidentally but memorably in several of these lives. In A God in Ruins, we have Teddy’s story – one life but not told in a conventional manner. The novel moves through Teddy’s life, jumping backwards and forwards, chapter by chapter, but also within chapters. The story is told by a wise narrator who leaves clues to future, present and past, as we learn to know Ted Todd very well indeed, as we do everyone else in his life. The narrative moves between generations, different perspectives of the same event are provided, memories come and go, places are visited and revisited. It is organic and whole. A God in Ruins is a brilliantly structured novel, its strands knitted together expertly, beautifully.
A God in Ruins lulled me into a false sense of security. It moved gently as it invited me, the reader, to want to get to know Teddy, introducing me to a young child describing nature to his glamorous, rather eccentric aunt Izzy on a meandering country walk, before moving me on with a jolt to another generation in a much different time. But slowly and surely, everything begins to knot together and that is when the heart becomes engaged and emotions start to build. I loved Teddy – not just the child but the man he becomes, so much so that I am tearful even thinking about him!
Just like Life After Life, A God in Ruins is a novel about war. Teddy’s experiences as a pilot of Halifax bombers colours his entire life, affecting every relationship, and we are immersed in the depths of pain and turmoil that hide in Teddy’s heart.
I’m not going to tell you here about what happens to Teddy, or about any of the people who move through this novel and Teddy’s life – each of them will grab hold of you, your feelings towards them will change, you will care deeply, maybe even dislike one or two of them intensely. But I will say that one of the reasons that I loved this book so much is because it made me think deeply about how little we might really know about those we love, how rewarded we would be if we dug a little, even if it also hurt a bit. The themes here are huge – life can be short; it is important to live that life fully and well.
A God in Ruins is a melancholic novel, it has scenes that are extremely upsetting, the more so because Kate Atkinson has the gift of making us care about her characters. But there are many light moments, humorous phrases, which contribute to the novel’s intense sense of being about the lives of real people. The relationships in it are complex and so believable and recognisable. The dialogue is spot on. All linked by the knowing, compassionate and very human voice of our author’s persona.
At the heart of this remarkable, wonderful book, though, is Teddy – I’m struggling to think of any other character in a novel I’ve felt so drawn to. Prepare to laugh and cry – and possibly cry an awful lot – as you get to know this man as he lives through his life, teaching us as he goes about what the years have taught him about home, love, family, war, nature, duty and death. I am overwhelmed.
Life After Life