Friday, October 16, 2015

Review of A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Before I get started, I want to throw out another reminder that The Leaning Stack of Books is having a birthday! I’m giving one lucky reader a copy of the book I’ve enjoyed the most over the past year. What do you have to do to participate? Just let me know the title of your favorite book from the last twelve months. Easy! On Tuesday, October 20, I’ll let everyone know who’s going to get a fun package in the mail.

And now onto other news! I finally – FINALLY-- finished Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins. It took me longer to read this one than it did to read Purity, and that’s saying something. But here’s the thing that will surprise you if you’ve stayed with me as I’ve whined about this book – I really liked it. Or, more accurately, I really liked it once I got to the ending.

This book is billed as a “companion piece” to 2013’s Life After Life, which is a novel that follows one character, Ursula, through several versions of her life. The reader gets to see how small choices alter and shape families and communities and world events. Atkinson received a lot of positive press for shaking up Life After Life’s structure in an interesting way.  And once I adjusted to the rhythm of that unusual story, I was captivated.

A God In Ruins follows Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, but the structure is different. The reader doesn’t follow different iterations of Teddy’s life but instead gets to jump back and forth in time with him. We see him as a young man, when he is a pilot in World War II. We see him as a small child. We see him as a father, as a grandfather, and as a very old man.  What emerges is a rather ordinary portrait of a nice guy.  Often, life gives him lemons. Sometimes he makes lemonade, and sometimes he doesn’t.

The back-and-forth-in-time narration seems to dull some of the suspense that might occur in a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  There are many war scenes, and those should be exciting. But Atkinson often writes some elegant version of this kind of sentence in the middle of a chapter:

Teddy would reflect back on this very exciting and scary life-and-death moment from his rocking chair in old age.

The result is that the reader feels reassured that everything is going to work out, though it certainly makes for a less intense reading experience.

So far this sounds like a critique, right? But here’s the thing: this is a novel that is more than it seems. For hundreds of pages, I wondered how this meandering look at a regular guy could possibly be a companion to Life After Life. But because I enjoy Atkinson so much, I should have trusted her. It IS a companion. So if you’re feeling puzzled while reading this book, stop scratching your head. Just hang on, and trust her. TRUST. Just be sure to make it to the very end.

I don’t have much of a memory for the details of Life After Life, and that didn’t impact my experience with this book at all. Other reviewers have mentioned all the crossover characters, but I wasn’t aware of many of them. So, from my perspective, you can read A God In Ruins as a stand-alone piece if you want. What you’ll lose, however, is the connection between the two, and that, I think, is where the magic lies.

An aside: Atkinson writes an author’s note at the end where she tries to justify her choices in this book. I wondered why she felt the need to give so much explanation. However, she also gives a lens into all the research she did about World War II bombing raids. The war scenes are meticulously detailed, and it was interesting to learn about how she constructed them.

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