28 June 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Where to begin?!  For those who may be unfamiliar, A God in Ruins is a companion piece rather than a sequel to the stunningly good Life After Life.  I plowed through that book two years ago and finished in just a few nights; there was something very moreish about each episode of Ursula's life that kept me turning pages until late into the night.  Initially I thought this next book couldn't possibly be as unique or as brilliant as its predecessor but Kate Atkinson has done it again.

A God in Ruins explores, Ursula's youngest brother, Teddy's journey through many of his life's events; some are extraordinary, such as serving as a bomber pilot with the RAF during WWII and some are rather ordinary, as in being a husband, father, and grandfather.  At least on the surface those moments are easily compartmentalized but when Teddy was in the pilot's seat his actions sprang from rigorous training and the results were ultimately good or bad.  You could say that, for Teddy, navigating through relationships with his immediate family required the same intestinal fortitude as navigating a warplane under attack and both left scars.

Kate Atkinson's research on the WWII era is thorough, detailed, and need I say frightening?  I can't imagine what it must have been like to know that the chances of ever seeing your friends or loved ones again after a few missions were slim to none.

  'They were fifth in line to take off and they swung on to the runway, engines to full boost, waiting, a greyhound in a trap, ready to go where the controller's Aldis light showed green.  Teddy was still expecting the red light from the control tower, cancelling the op.  It never came.  Sometimes they were even recalled once they were in the air.  Not this time.
   The usual flare-path farewell party had gathered at the controllers caravan.  Assorted WAAFs, cookhouse and ground crew.  The CO was there, the air vice-marshal too, saluting every aircraft as it passed.  Those who are about to die to not salute you back, Teddy thought.'

The chapters in this book are composed of periods of time and are not linear, jogging back and forth from the twenties to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  While Teddy doesn't emerge through time the way Ursula did the fascinating aspect of jumping around eras is still there.

Regarding Teddy's personal life, I quite liked his wife, Nancy, for her love of the arts, maths, and lying about being married so she could continue to teach.  The eventual birth of their daughter, Viola, when the couple had nearly given up hope is a thrilling event but new limbs on the family tree are thorny ones.  The conflict between generations when one has fought and sacrificed versus post-austerity entitlement could splinter any weakened relationship but Teddy has the patience of someone who is simply thankful to be alive.  As for Viola, she is frustratingly irresponsible at times and her own worst enemy.  Just when my contempt for her was running at its highest there is a heartbreaking scene from her childhood that goes a long way towards explaining some aspects of Viola's character.

At a point somewhere near the three-quarter mark I stopped for a minute and looked at the bigger picture, and something occurred to me...but it wouldn't be right to share.  And yet, despite that
knowledge I was still left reeling by the poignancy of what the whole thing meant by the end.  There are two podcasts on my iPod featuring Kate talk about this book so I'm happy to finally be able to listen to what she has to say about her journey with this story!

If you haven't read Life After Life and this post has made you desperate to read A God in Ruins I say 'go for it!'.  This book will work as a stand-alone piece and is absolutely brilliant.

The Last Flight
Artist Unknown


  1. I finished this a week or two ago and am still trying to formulate a response to it. The writing is wonderful, of course, and I enjoyed the book but never really engaged with it. I think it might actually work better as a stand alone novel for people who haven't yet read Life After Life. Knowing and loving that book leads your mind in certain directions which, I think, makes the ending less surprising than it's meant to be.

    1. Oh Claire...I read your post, the one about three whole books that I quite enjoyed and you..well, not so much! This really can't go on! Here's to that book that excites BOTH of us....I'm trying an unknown next so fingers crossed.

  2. I have it here sitting next to all of her novels / short stories but have yet to read it ... but soon. I have been re-reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum, still a great delight.

    1. You're simply building a fabulous library, Anne! I want to say that I've read Behind the Scenes at the Museum but it was so long ago the details have all but faded. I listened to Atkinson on a podcast today, the first time hearing her speak, and she's quite lovely. Must make a point of reading more of her books.

  3. I loved her first three books, but I didn't like the Brodie Jackson quite as much, and I couldn't get along with Life after Life, so I thought I'd pass on this one. But my younger daughter just read it, and has been raving about how wonderful it is. Her comments were very similar to your's, especially the poignancy of the ending - apparently she sat and cried!

    1. Can we convince you to give this book a try then, Christine? And give your daughter a hug for me...I love that she shared her feelings about the book with you and was so moved.