A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins It’s been nearly three years since I read my first Kate Atkinson novel, Life After Life, in which Ursula Todd lives her life over and over again, each new life giving her a chance to alter decisions and mistakes made in the one before. Since then I’ve been catching up with Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mystery series (I only have one of those left to read) but last week I decided it was time to pick up her latest novel, A God in Ruins, and reacquaint myself with the Todd family.

A God in Ruins is not exactly a sequel to Life After Life – it can be better described as a ‘companion novel’ – and both do stand alone. There are some similarities between the two novels, but there’s also a big difference. While Life After Life follows several different versions of the same person’s life, A God in Ruins concentrates on someone who lives just one life: his name is Teddy Todd and he is Ursula’s younger brother.

Teddy’s story is told in non-chronological order, so that a chapter about his childhood is followed by one set towards the end of his life and then another describing his time as a World War II bomber pilot (there are several wartime chapters interspersed throughout the novel). We also get to know Teddy’s wife, Nancy (who was literally the ‘girl next door’), their daughter, Viola, and grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie. The stories of each of these people unfold gradually, chapter by chapter, and the non-linear timeline means that we are sometimes given hints of something that has happened in the past or will happen in the future but have to wait until later in the book for a revelation. Flashbacks and ‘flashforwards’ often happen in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence, which I found intriguing rather than confusing.

I enjoyed A God in Ruins but didn’t love it as much as I loved Life After Life, maybe because it felt less innovative without the device of one person living many different lives. Still, many of the same themes are here: life and death, fate and the ways in which our actions in the present can have big consequences in the future, and, of course, the effects of war. I mentioned that there are several chapters on Teddy’s experiences piloting a Halifax bomber during the war. I didn’t initially find these sections very engaging (in the words of Nancy, Teddy’s wife, “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”), but eventually I was drawn in and started to enjoy those chapters as much as the others.

My favourite thing about Kate Atkinson’s writing is the way she creates characters who feel so real and believable – even if some of them are not easy to like, they are still interesting and fully developed. Viola, for example, is a cold and bitter person, unable to offer her children any love and affection, and as her father grows older, resenting every minute of the time she has to spend caring for him. At first it seems that there is no reason for Viola’s selfish behaviour, but later in the novel we learn of something that happened in her childhood that could provide an explanation.

I also liked all the little literary references Atkinson slipped into the story. I was particularly pleased to see that Teddy was an Anthony Trollope reader! As for the ending of the book, I think it’s probably best if I say nothing at all – other than that it’s one of those endings people will either love or hate. Personally, I thought it was perfect; it changed the way I felt about the entire book and left me with a lot to think about, which is what all good novels should do.

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9 thoughts on “A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson”

  1. Gosh, I already forgot what happened to Viola, although I remember that it gave me a bit of sympathy for her, but not much, considering how she treated her children. I agree that I loved Life After Life much more, but this is still a great book, and I agree that Atkinson somehow is able to make her characters seem real, a quality that not many books these days share.

    1. Viola was horrible, wasn’t she! I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for her either. And yes, I agree that there aren’t many authors these days who can bring their characters to life as well as Atkinson does.

  2. I read most of this and then for some reason stopped! I can’t believe I didn’t read on until the end as I was enjoying it – maybe not as much as Life After Life, but I love Atkinson’s writing. I will have to go back and finish as now I am curious about the ending.

  3. I loved this book and the ending made me cry. I don’t read much contemporary fiction any more (way too many old books on the TBR shelves) but I read this as soon as I got my hands on it since I loved Life After Life so much — both were my favorite reads of their respective years. Great review!

  4. I read this at the wrong time. That can happen with books, can’t it? I know that I need to go back to it when I can give it the attention it deserves. Thanks for reminding me.

    1. This book had been sitting on my shelf for months waiting for the right time for me to read it. I hope you have better luck with it the second time if you do decide to go back to it.

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