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May 12, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

a-god-in-ruinsI’m such an admirer of omniscience, though I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. There are readers for whom omniscience pulls them out of the story, exposing the limits of the fictional universe—that all this is artifice after all—but those very same limits, to me, are the very indicators that there is a fictional universe. It’s the point of reading a book, a whole imagined world to be revealed, and Kate Atkinson is a master at commanding its reins. From her very first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which begins with Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”—Atkinson has been part of a grand tradition of English writers (Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etc.) pushing the bounds of narrative to discover just what a novel can hold and the multitudinous ways a story can be told.

Her last novel, Life After Lifewas unabashed in its experimentation. What if, it supposed, a person could go back in her life, over and over again, and have the chance to do over what went wrong before? This was the story of Ursula Todd whose preternatural tendency toward expiration is matched only by her ability to be reborn (“I exist!”) over and over. Her story spans the first half of the twentieth century, encompassing world wars and radical social change. The metaphysical elements of the novel are never clearly delineated—Ursula sort of understands her situation but Atkinson provides no reason for her ability to be reborn and go back in time over and over again. Life After Life is a novel far more concerned with What If? than Why?—to what extent is there predestiny, can we control our fates, what are unintended consequences of that control? Can practice make perfect? What I found remarkable about Life After Life is that Atkinson uses her life-after-life device not just to play tricks, but to build characters too and and develop plot, and how this book of starts comes together to be something altogether whole.

(I am incapable of real criticism of Kate Atkinson. I am simply in awe of her work. But I also thought that Rohan Maitzen’s critical review of Life After Life was excellent, and adds even more texture to a very substantial novel.)

Atkinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins, is not a sequel to Life After Life, she explains in her afterword, but “a companion novel.” It’s the life story of Ursula’s brother Teddy in a version of their family’s life that is slightly different than those portrayed in the first novel. Where Ursula died over and over again, Teddy shows a predilection toward survival, miraculously making it through a career as a WW2 bomber pilot. And it is the war upon which his story hinges—an experience both makes him and destroys him. An experiences that does not become less raw as the war itself fades into history, though those around put it away in the past. “You can only go forward,” is a line delivered again and again in the text, a winky joke at the premise of Life After Life, but also blatantly wrong in the matter of narrative because an author is free to put her story together anyway she likes—forward, backward, and round and round in circles. Posing the questions: what if history never entirely goes away? how does it change as we carry it with us? And how is a conventional existence not unlike Ursula’s in reality: “It felt as if he had lived many lifetimes,” Teddy remembers at one point, and who has not felt this way? What is the cumulation of these lives, these selves? What is the thing that connects them?

The reader follows Teddy through his many lives, which are all lived in the same life—through the trauma of his war experiences (whose violence is unflinching but matter-of-fact), the happy early years of his marriage, his tumultuous relationship with his daughter, Viola, and the injustices she inflicts upon her own children, whom Teddy becomes responsible for. As with Life After Life, there is repetition, details slightly changed, conflicting accounts—reading the novel through a similar metaphysical lens as the previous novel is an illuminating experience. And at the end of the story, Atkinson shows her hand with a twist that shall not be revealed, but it’s wonderful and gut-punching, and demonstrates that we’re in the hand of a master writer. As if you ever had any doubts…

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

  1. Both of those questions—what if and why—intrigue me, have always done. So I have both books, though I have yet to start them. Your review makes me excited about them! Apart from that, though, your review is a REVIEW—that is, thoughtful, exploratory, and insightful. Thank you!

  2. Nonie says:

    Why is the twist so devastating when the whole story is fiction? I finished the book this morning and am bereft but also grateful that Atkinson once again gave me a real world I which to bury myself for a few hundred pages. But I was devasted at the ending, which also thoroughly surprised me.

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