Book Review: A God in Ruins [by Kate Atkinson]

I didn’t make any notes while reading this, so this might be much more general than the review I did of Life After Life (which goodreads helpfully tags as Todd #1).

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I think the title A God in Ruins (Todd #2) is pretty much an effective summary of the book: it’s a multi-toned, quietly mournful tragedy. While Life After Life was definitely not a barrel of laughs, I don’t think it was as sombre as its sequel. Maybe it’s partly to do with the sliced-up effect, Ursula Todd reliving her lives again and again brings in different flavours, different people, and different themes.

But seriousness obviously isn’t necessarily a bad thing, certainly not in the case of Atkinson. A God in Ruins deals primarily with Ursula Todd’s younger brother, Edward ‘Teddy’ Todd, his years spent as a bomber pilot in WWII, his relationship with his childhood ‘sweetheart’ (a relationship Atkinson tends to complicate greatly) and wife Nancy Shawcross, and their daughter, Violet. And a generation further, his two grandchildren – Sunny and Bertie.

The reason I keep going back to Atkinson, the reason I read this book, is not because it’s (something of a) war novel or its typical Britishness (which I noticed other reviewers have pointed out), but really because of the strength of her writing, her ability to delineate in such depth character elements, relationship threads, and pre-war, the terror of war, and the anxiety of a post-war world. I don’t think you ever get the feeling that you see the whole picture, though, you see fragments, glimpses, explored with such detailed narrative care. While the book consists of time jumps, wheeling back and forth between childhoods and deathbeds, wartime and after, I wouldn’t really call it plot-driven (some of the scenes describing Teddy in action as a pilot were a little long drawn for me, actually).

It is difficult, almost impossible, I feel, to fully uncover every single major and semi-major aspect of a character in text. People are so dynamic, so emotional and changeable, and I don’t think that completeness was Atkinson’s concern. But she spent a great deal of time uncovering specific intricacies, and I would call A God in Ruins, to some extent at least, a character-driven novel, specially in the area of capturing fragmented, almost-private moments and translating them into insightful coherence.

She felt as if she had been on the outside of happiness her whole life.

Atkinson’s characters are for the most part, a traditional lot. Good enough to blame it on historical accuracy, I guess.

Teddy’s character took precedence, and for the most part I felt Teddy was a little too much of a good-guy for me to like him. I mean, I’ve no real love for the phrase trying too hard when applied to a person – because I think it’s okay and natural to try too hard (I try not to be too judgemental about character traits in real people for the most part, and anyway who’s measuring how much you’re trying apart from bored high schoolers?) – but I somehow got the feeling that Atkinson wanted the reader to like Teddy so much that she overcompensated. It doesn’t take away from the crispness or the fragility of many of the insights she offers through him, but to be honest, Teddy grated on me a little sometimes. (It’s a good novel, gotta nitpick.)

In continuing the pattern of not quite knowing what Atkinson wanted to achieve with her characters, we have Violet, probably a bad mother by most normative standards, almost slipping into something of a caricature, an object of much of the book’s sarcasm and wit. And it’s not that Atkinson portrays her entirely unsympathetically – her simmering bitterness towards her father, her sustained bitterness regarding her position as a mother, these things are explained. I don’t really know what the intention was with a character like Violet, she was certainly extremely nuanced, but, as with Teddy, she felt almost too polarising to me. And I’m repeating myself, I feel like I was supposed to dislike her too much. She was set up to fail, much of the book’s humour and head-shaking is directed towards her. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.
Violet’s children, Bertie, who consistently appears in (often witty) bracketed rebuttals, and Sunny, the miserable boy who finds an unorthodox future, are not as polarising, and are interesting enough, and Sylvie (Teddy’s mother) and Ursula find their scattered mentions.

When I read Life After Life, I found myself fascinated by a character who was not the protagonist, and that was Sylvie. I was surprised to find myself undergoing a similar experience while reading this. Nancy Shawcross is at first viewed mostly from Teddy’s perspective. It is only when you’ve made it through a significant chunk of the novel that you reach her own. She was, for me, so much more interesting than Teddy made her seem, more likeable, more alive, and finally, perhaps, the most devastating. The few pages which Nancy had to herself were probably the most consistent highlight of the book for me (although there were several other scattered gems here and there, of course). There was something refreshing about her character, her approach to life. If there’s someone I feel Atkinson could have focussed a little more on, it would be Nancy. But who knows, maybe I was so drawn to her because I just needed a break from Teddy.

I should address the two twists in the novel (that I identified, anyway). One was, I felt, heavily downplayed and anticlimactic, but it fit in quite nicely with the general tone of the novel. I probably would’ve been surprised if there had been a digression. The other, an offshoot of Life After Life, was interesting. I was not really shaken by either one, but I didn’t really expect to be.

“‘But then, I suppose,’ Ursula said, ‘you could keep going back, unpicking history all the way, until you arrived at Cain and Abel again’.”

As an afternote, I won’t tackle the intricacies of Teddy and Nancy’s relationship, only say that I found it fascinating. Why they married in the first place, though – an excellent question I think, to start with. One that probably has an answer (several answers), but this review is certainly too long for me to attempt one now.

“A man is a god in ruins.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A God in Ruins is a treasure of a book, heavy with insight about life, war, and death, but somehow engaging and witty at the same time (although not joyous), a balance Atkinson achieves with a kind of practiced ease (which I assume she gained from Life After Life, I haven’t read her others). While the characters were not always appealing to me, the things they thought and said were characterised by great meaning and depth. And, as before, I appreciated Ursula’s observations about life and reincarnation, a subject she knows all too well. And I loved all the literary references – the Todds are a poetic bunch. I hope Atkinson will write a companion to this companion. A bleak novel, a slow funerary descent – and somehow still so readable. Writers, how do they do it?

PS. I very much appreciated the Richmal Crompton reference, I love the William books too. Also, I would recommend reading the Author’s Note, it deserves one. (Also, I was very bored in the doctor’s waiting room. But, it does deserve one.)

PPS. It was supposed to be short, because it’s been a while since I read the book. What ever happened? Also, this was late. Maybe I’ll stick to Mondays for reviews? Who knows, who knows. Not me.

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

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