I have to say I’m a bit in awe of Kate Atkinson’s writing prowess. This novel sucked me in, gave me a dose of existential angst, made me laugh, and then made me cry. Atkinson plays a lot with form here, just as she did in Life after Life, but it works because the characters are just so wonderfully and frustratingly real.
In Life after Life, Atkinson tells the story of Ursula Todd who dies and is reborn numerous times in the novel as she works her way toward and through World War II. It’s like Groundhog Day only Ursula’s main focus is not getting it right so she can get it on with Andie MacDowell. It’s something much larger. In A God in Ruins, Atkinson returns to the Todd family but this time she focuses in on Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother, who serves as a pilot running bombing raids over Germany during the war.
Though the story returns again and again to descriptions of Teddy’s experiences during the war, it also moves back and forward in time. We see moments from Teddy’s childhood and teenage years. We also see how his life unfolds after the war, when he marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, and has a daughter, Viola. The novel dances and loops between moments in time, sometimes so quickly that I had to stop and re-read a section. We see the parent that Viola becomes and the effects she has on her children (Teddy’s grandchildren), Sonny and Bertie. Atkinson gives us a rich feel for each moment in time she pauses at—whether it’s in the 1940’s, the 1960’s, or 2012.
Teddy is the calm and lovely center of this chaos and though he is not perfect, he comes across as a solidly good man—one who tries to love and be kind no matter what life throws him. Watching him age and move from house to assisted living to nursing home is just one small tragedy set against the larger tragedy of World War II and all the young men and women who died—some in battle and even more during training (shades of Unbroken here). There’s a lot to grapple with in this novel and the ending is a powerful blow to the gut (yes, I cried . . . a lot) but I’m so glad I read it. It made me think about life, death, and the power of fiction. What more can you ask for?