Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins, the furiously anticipated sister novel to one of 2013's best books is out at last. Here the reader revisits the Todd family of Fox Corner and delves this time into the life and times of Ted, the second youngest of the brood. The narrative jumps back and forth through the 20th century honing in on different periods of Teddy Todd's life. In Life After Life various versions of Ted go off to fight in the Second World War, always waved off at the station by various versions of his sister Ursula. Some scenarios see him safely home, some see him lost in a downed plane on a bombing raid.

Ted recounts some events of his life more fondly than others but it's difficult to tell how he feels about his life- he's of the generation that bottles up feelings and sees no sense in regret or complaint. We see him during the war and his time as a RAF bomber pilot; his idyllic childhood at Fox Corner with his sisters; his uneventful marriage to the stoic Nancy; extreme old age; the inception and adventures of his alter ego Augustus; his cantankerous elderly years as he's ferried from sheltered living to care home; the years he spent as a single father, struggling to raise his wayward only child Viola; we see him bickering with a middle aged Viola, taking care of his abandoned grandchildren as she swans off on yet another hippy world-saving crusade...

The book not only fills in the gaps in the life of the prodigal son, but it expands it too, as he outlives most of the characters that we are familiar with. Ted has led an ordinary post-war life of kindness and quiet contemplation, appreciating nature, trying to love his family, forgiving the Germans and living silently with the guilt and turmoil of his war deeds.The narrative also slips occasionally into other family members' stories. Nancy becomes the narrator in a few chapters, as does daughter Viola (late middle age) and grandson Sunny (as a child). It's interesting to see such a familiar, beloved character (beloved by the reader as well as his adoring family) seen through the eyes of a daughter that seems so angry and disappointed with him.

Essentially it's a story about complicated families and making mistakes, then living with the consequences of the decisions we make. In many ways it's the antithesis of its sister novel. Whereas Ursula had many chances to change the outcome of her life, consciously or not, Teddy is stuck- torturing himself by wondering what he's done wrong in his lifetime. The choices he made and all the 'what if's that might have existed. All he ever did was his best for the people he loved, but it's second nature to second guess. I never got the impression that Ted led a melancholy or regret-filled life, he just never seemed to be able to reach the potential that a background like his suggested. Perhaps the war ruined potential for a whole generation.

I did enjoy this novel, but it I didn't feel myself spellbound in the same way as with Life After Life. With absolutely sky-high expectations, it was going to be difficult to pull off a sequel to what is probably one of the best books in the last two decades, and that always skews things slightly. Atkinson's prose is as luminous as ever, conjuring up so many memorable images and scenes- she writes so beautifully and with such emotion and understanding. Whereas the previous book allowed the reader to decide which life Ursula truly lived (or whether she lived them all in fact, over and over) this book seemed, in comparison, to settle on too definite a course. Until it was all was  possibly called into question. All those wonderful uncertainties that made Life After Life  so unique and so unforgettable were decided on in this book. We know what happened to Ursula- she was a civil service worker and never married. We know what happened to Teddy. Pam. Winnie. Nancy. All of them. I'm afraid that I found the various episodes of one life to be less enchanting than a myriad of versions of another.

I think really, if I'm being fussy, I would ask why A God in Ruins truly needed to share characters with Life After Life. I think I would have liked it more if the same story were told with a new cast- another RAF veteran who had other sisters and lived somewhere else. There could have been cameos, he might have flown a few times with Teddy Todd...After all, RAF bombers are something featured in many of Atkinson's books- the War scenes were some of my favourite from Behind the Scenes at the Museum. There's a lot of distance between the AGiR and LAL books, but some links remain. I would've felt better, I think, if those links were severed entirely. But that's just me. It's still an incredibly absorbing and emotional read.

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