Book Review: A God In Ruins

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Anyone who read my review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life knows that it was one of my all-time favorites.  It still holds a special place in my heart, and I proudly count it among my Top Ten.  When news broke that Kate Atkinson was writing a companion novel to this masterpiece, we Hoarders could barely contain our excitement.  A novel that focuses its attention on the life of Ursula’s beloved younger brother, Teddy??  When do we get to open this gift?!

Before you grab A God In Ruins, it’s important to note that this is a vastly different novel than Life After Life.  Thankfully, someone shared this wisdom with me before I picked up the new installment, and thank heavens that they did. Unsuspecting readers who grabbed A God In Ruins thinking that it was going to be just as other worldly as its predecessor were very frustrated.  I read several reviews of A God In Ruins that listed reasons for being let down.  Reviewers lamented that the new novel was not a continuation.  It was not a sequel.  It did not have the same tone or pace.

All of these observations are true.  A God In Ruins is a much quieter book than Life After Life.  Teddy Todd, as a protagonist, changes the entire perspective.  While readers may have adored Ursula’s fire, they might have been perplexed by Teddy’s complacency.

If A God In Ruins was a person, it would be a kindly older gentleman.  That gentleman would be wearing slippers, drinking tea and writing poetry.  He would never shout.  He would not argue.  He would concede points that shouldn’t be conceded. He would refrain from sharing the most dramatic moments of his life, even when it would shed light on his persona.  At no time would he make any move to help alleviate his own burdens.  You might even grow frustrated with his willingness to accept the unacceptable.

The difference between the two novels therefore lies in the protagonists.  Where Life After Life rockets forth, A God In Ruins sweetly plods.  Ursula’s story is gripping.  Teddy’s story is cerebral.  While both characters steal space in your heart, they take up room for different reasons.  The truth of the matter is that A God In Ruins is a lengthy read, and at times, is actually quite slow.  There are dramatic flashbacks when Teddy was a WWII Bomber Command Pilot (and a damned good one), but overall, the heart of this novel is about Teddy’s life as a seasoned gentleman who is traipsing through his mature years.

Teddy is indeed just as lovely a creature as he was in Life After Life, but I’m afraid that this time, he’s surrounded by a dizzying array of  unlikable characters.  The most ghastly of these is his daughter, Viola.  There are no words to describe how much I detested this woman.  If I could have crawled into the pages of this book, I would have smacked the living daylights out of this entitled brat (yes, “brat” includes Viola as an adult).  How someone as lovely as Teddy could have fathered such a person was beyond my grasp.

Sorry.  Got sidelined by an angry rant.

Aside from Viola, the people in Teddy’s life include his wife Nancy, his grandson Sunny and his granddaughter Bertie.  As the novel covers almost a century of Teddy’s life, it masterfully illustrates the harrowing effects of silence.  Teddy’s wife Nancy elicits little emotion from the reader, as this character stews in secrets.  Sunny, wildly stubborn and borderline feral as a child, grows into a confused adult who never divulges the truth about his father’s untimely death.  And Bertie, the one who is inherently strong enough to speak her mind, never adequately puts her mother in her proper place.  The effects of silence bore down on each character in this novel, with the quietest of them all bearing the brunt of the pain.

The time Teddy spent in the war understandably made a lasting imprint.  His experience as Halifax Bomber Pilot, his friends lost, his time spent as a prisoner of war – all of these sit in the back of his mind.  Since Teddy does not openly speak about these experiences, they reside only in his memory.  The reader is afforded glimpses of Teddy’s life during WWII via flashback, but his family members aren’t given the same view.  These memories therefore haunt Teddy in a myriad of ways, all of them understandable and truly heartbreaking.  The truth of the matter is that Teddy was a hero in many ways, and not just in war.  I’ll repeat that he is just as endearing in this novel as he was in Life After Life.  I loved his calm personality, and his dry wit.  I was enamored by his patience and his loyalty.  Most of all, I was once again stymied by the skill of Kate Atkinson to paint such a complete picture of a fictional human being.

Overall, I do recommend that you read this novel, but please enter the pages with eyes wide open.  This is a subtle story, and a fascinating character study.  There are many moments of the book that almost seem too quiet, but rest assured that everything in this book has its purpose.  Life After Life is a story of alternate lives.  Without divulging a spoiler, so too is A God In Ruins.  Kate Atkinson has an incredible talent for sharing puzzles with her readers, and this novel is no different.  I have to confess that until I reached the crescendo of A God In Ruins, I was feeling 3 stars.  Upon the book’s close, however, I was overcome by the author’s brilliance.  Gaping at what transpired, I marveled at the book’s arc, and its message.   Only Kate Atkinson can pull the rug out like that.

A God In Ruins is as beautiful as it is stoic.  Pick this up with the knowledge that it’s every bit as worthy of your time as Life After Life.  It may sneak up on you rather than biting you full force, but the effect will be the same.  4 stars.

Literary Hoarders Elizabeth