4 May 2015

Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 7 May 2015
Hardback, 385pp

I'm very grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book.  Reading it was an utter joy.  Reviewing it is much harder, because it is simply so good.  Part of me just wants to say "you must read this".  Trying to put into words why you should is difficult.  In fact it almost seems absurd.  Kate Atkinson has written the words, they are A God in Ruins, and those words stand for themselves and tell you why you should read them.  Any alternative words won't convey the same meaning.

But that wouldn't be much help, so here goes:

First, if you read Atkinson's Life After Life, you will want to understand the relationship between the two books.  In Life After Life we saw repeated, alternate versions of the life of Ursula Todd.  Each ended with her death, sometimes as a child, sometimes as a girl, sometimes as a woman. And then the story began again, with the silver hare on the chain dangling in Ursula's view.  We came to love Ursula as she suffered through the 20th century in a story centred, always, on the London Blitz but ending - in some versions - decades later. We learned about Ursula's family - her beloved brother Teddy, her parents Hugh and Sylvie, her wayward aunt.  Each iteration of her life cast new light, showed a new dimension, a new viewpoint until like a Cubist painting the different angles produced a full and rounded picture of the whole.

If that earlier book was Ursula's, this is Teddy's. It is told more simply, without alternate timelines, and therefore (presumably) corresponds to a particular Ursula: but though we see her she doesn't feature that much, so it's not possible to slot Teddy into a particular version.  That, and the slight haze of time since reading Life After Life, meant I ended seeing the Ursula presented here as a composite Ursula, a kind of superposition.

Teddy is - was - a bomber pilot.  Running like a red thread through the heart of his book are the nightly missions, the tours of duty, the near misses, the fear and darkness as he flies to Berlin - the "Big City" - to Nuremberg, to Hamburg, in his Halifax, destroying those below.  In one Life After Life variant Ursula was trapped in Berlin, not living in London, so there is a dark symmetry between the two books.

The wartime bombing campaign was, and is still, controversial.  Was it justified, morally or even in military terms? Were the courage of the airmen, and their horrendous losses, wasted? Atkinson touches on these questions, but says little about them directly (there are a couple of exchanges between the older Teddy and former comrades).  Rather, she shows how it's not all bombs - Teddy lives a long life and the consequences of his wartime actions remain with him and pass down through the generations. We see Teddy postwar, and his daughter Viola, always raging, always suppressing her rage. We see her own children, troubled Sunny and self-sufficient Bertie, and the book explores the impact of the war on them, the reaction and counter-reaction to what Teddy did. Cause and effect tumble from troubled generation to troubled generation. Haunting the story - more strongly for being mostly implicit - are those questions of guilt and responsibility, awful things done and required to be done.  Atkinson never leaps to easy judgement, or to easy absolution, allowing her characters to face the issues, never hectoring them from a seat of authorial certainty.

So, a straighter narrative, in some ways, than Life After Life, and one with, perhaps, a more overt theme: yet also not.  One triumph - among many - of the earlier book was its allusive, decades-leaping style where events, phrases, incidents, characters were echoed and examined from different viewpoints. Atkinson uses a similar approach in this book and indeed the effect is perhaps more powerful for the knowledge that the events described exist in a single reality.  Sometimes it can be dizzying as we hop from Bertie in the 2000s to her childhood in the 1980s to her mother in the 60s or 70s and then surface again.  But always, always, there is a point, a juxtaposition.  Sometimes it isn't clear for another 100 pages: sometimes it makes sense of something that happened in Life After Life (Sylvie's walk down the Strand, the fiction of Augustus). Some of it only becomes clear in the final few pages, as we see what Atkinson was really doing with her intricate story of cause and effect, running forward and backward through history and tying individual lives into a rich pattern with that red thread.

Rereading what I've said above I doubt more than ever the wisdom of trying to describe this book.

I'm afraid, for example, I've made it seem like a cold, clever, tricksy book, a thing all technique and form, and really it's not.  It is a warm, human book, a book with heart as well as head. Terrible things happen, but generally they are not done by terrible people (though there are a couple).  They are done by sympathetic people, people you'd be happy to share a long train journey with.  Those people have their own dilemmas, their own sadnesses and they bear the guilt of what they did (or not).

Atkinson's characters step off the the page, sit down next to you, and ask about the weather and where you are from.  And, as in real life, some of them them tell you about themselves, and what they tell is heartbreakingly sad, or funny, or both.  So it's a startlingly vivid, compassionate and above well realised slice of life.

I give up. Just read this book.  That's all.

(And no, you don't need to read Life After Life first - but if you don't you'll surely want to read it after).

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