A God In Ruins

By Kate Atkinson

(Little, Brown and Company, $28, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

Kate Atkinson, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, won the Whitbread (now called the Costa) Book of the Year Award for her first novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” and became a bestselling author who has more than one million copies of her books in print in the United States alone. Even the titles of her novels are intriguing, such as “Human Croquet,” “Emotionally Weird,” “When Will There Be Good News?”  and “Started Early, Took My Dog.” Her novel “Case Histories,” which featured private investigator Jackson Brodie, became a TV series. She also has written a story collection, “Not the End of the World.”

What is this book about?

A follow-up  — no, that’s not quite right, it’s a companion  novel —  to Atkinson’s #1 bestseller Life After Life, told through the younger brother of its heroine, Ursula, who gets to live her life over and over as she witnesses the events of the 20th century.  A God In Ruins is the story of a young man who, instead of living over and over until he gets it right, like Ursula, must face having a future when he never expected to see one.

Teddy Todd lives through epic air battles of World War II, always believing his death is imminent, but survives. A hero as an RAF pilot, an amateur as a poet, Teddy must cope with a rapidly changing world as a husband, father and grandfather. His wife dies too young, his unpleasant daughter blames him — very late in the story we learn why — and life limps along. The book deals with four generations of the Todd family and oscillates back and forth in time, presenting an ordinary man in an ordinary British family, yet celebrating the extraordinariness of an individual life. And then, in the final pages, it smacks the reader with a (most likely) unexpected twist.

Why you’ll like it:                 

Atkinson has a brilliant imagination and gift for storytelling, here solidly undergirded by her research into the British v. German air war in World War II. The switches in time in this book can be dizzying, but they enliven the story. And then there is the surprise ending, sure to create very lively arguments as book clubs discuss this unusual novel from one of Scotland’s finest authors.

What others are saying:

Amazon.com’s  Best Book of May 2015 review says: “Talk about being your own tough act to follow! Having accomplished a near miracle with Life After Life, in which she used a literary-do-over trope to tell the story of a British woman living between and after the two World Wars, Kate Atkinson now dares to write a companion novel that focuses on Life’s heroine Ursula Todd’s brother Teddy. Never mind that careful readers of the first book came away with the impression that Teddy most often turned up dead, in this one he’s an old man trying to come to grips with his post-War life and with a modern world and family. Switching back and forth in time (Atkinson can’t seem to help it…) between memories of his childhood and his present, Teddy emerges as a befuddled and somewhat stodgy old-man version of himself, a startlingly oblivious husband to stalwart Nancy and a wittily rueful father to a grown up daughter (“Viola was the solitary arrow they had shot blindly into the future, not knowing where she would land,” Teddy thinks. “They should have aimed better.”) Teddy never quite got over the War and he suspects that the “fact” of his being alive is as arbitrary as Ursula’s demise(s). (“He had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future.”) Scenes from his past bring back Ursula and other characters from the earlier book so that readers who’ve come this far with Atkinson will feel a tiny thrill of recognition; but new readers needn’t fear they’re missing the joke. There’s way less gimmick here than in the earlier book, and sometimes I almost longed for more; it was so provocative. But whether read alone or as a follow up, A God in Ruins is a novel to savor, another beautiful, tender and sly Atkinsonian glimpse into the world of a so-called ordinary mid-century British family.”

“This follow up [to Life After Life] tracks Ursula’s brother, Teddy, a favorite son who flies an RAF bomber during the Second World War and remains kind, thoughtful, and patient through a life of quiet sadness…Teddy, unlike his sister, lives only one life, but Atkinson’s deft handling of time, as she jumps from boyhood to old age and back, is impressive,” says The New Yorker.

Says The New York Times Book Review: “…you read a novel like Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a sprawling, unapologetically ambitious saga that tells the story of postwar Britain through the microcosm of a single family, and you remember what a big, old-school novel can do. Atkinson’s book covers almost a century, tracks four generations, and is almost inexhaustibly rich in scenes and characters and incidents. It deploys the whole realist bag of tricks, and none of it feels fake or embarrassing. In fact, it’s a masterly and frequently exhilarating performance by a novelist who seems utterly undaunted by the imposing challenges she’s set for herself…Atkinson’s a sly and witty observer, with a gift for finding the perfect detail…”

In The New York Times, Janet Maslin writes: “. . . In this one, the main attraction is Teddy, and the way his glorious, hard-won decency withstands so many tests of time. Everything about his boyhood innocence is reshaped by his wartime ordeals, which are rendered with terrifying authenticity thanks to the author’s research into real bombers’ recollections…Ms. Atkinson has one huge trick up her sleeve, but she saves it for the book’s final moments to make it that much more devastating. She gets you to that final moment on faith and through writerly seduction. Just know that every salient detail in A God in Ruins, from the silver hare adorning Teddy’s pram to the queen’s Diamond Jubilee, is here for a fateful reason.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The life expectancy of RAF pilots in World War II was notoriously short, with fewer than half surviving the war. But Teddy Todd—the beloved younger brother of Ursula Todd, whose life in all its variations was the subject of Atkinson’s Life After Life—beats the odds. Inner peace means resuming a life he never expected to have in a now-diminished England. He has nightmares; a wife he loves, although not necessarily enough or in the right way; and, eventually, a daughter who blames him for her mother’s early death and never misses a chance to mention the blood on his hands. As much postwar story as war story, the book is also a depiction of the way past and present mix. Atkinson fans know that she can bend time to her will, and here she effortlessly shifts between Teddy’s flying days and his middle and old age, between his grandchildren and their awful mother, and back again. And, as in Life After Life, Atkinson isn’t just telling a story: she’s deconstructing, taking apart the notion of how we believe stories are told. Using narrative tricks that range from the subtlest sleight of hand to direct address, she makes us feel the power of storytelling not as an intellectual conceit, but as a punch in the gut.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “Fresh from the excellent Life After Life (2013), Atkinson takes another sidelong look at the natures of time and reality in this imaginative novel, her ninth. Transpose Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to the skies over Europe in World War II, and you’ll have some idea of the territory in which Atkinson is working. Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life, returns, appearing from time to time at just the right moments, in the manner of a chorus. The lead in this story, though, is her brother Teddy, who, having survived both childhood and the air war, is now disillusioned—”The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination”—and suffering from more than a little guilt that he lives while so many others do not. If Bierce might be a silent presence in the proceedings, so too might be The Best Years of Our Lives, which treats just that issue—save that we know how things turned out for the players in William Wyler’s 1946 film, whereas Atkinson constantly keeps us guessing, the story looping over itself in time (“This was when people still believed in the dependable nature of time—a past, a present, a future—the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on”) and presenting numerous possibilities for how Teddy’s life might unfold depending on the choices he makes, to say nothing of things well beyond his control. Atkinson’s narrative is without some of the showy pyrotechnics of its predecessor. Instead, it quietly, sometimes dolefully looks in on the players as, shell-shocked by a war that has dislocated whole generations and nations, they go about trying to refashion their lives and, of course, regretting things done, not done, and undone as they do. But do we really have just one life, as Ursula insists? It’s a point worth pondering. A grown-up, elegant fairy tale, at least of a kind, with a humane vision of people in all their complicated splendor.”

The Telegraph says: “. . . the bad news about reviewing A God in Ruins is that it ends with one of the most devastating twists in recent fiction – one I definitely can’t reveal but which is, as Atkinson’s afterword acknowledges, “the whole raison d’être of the novel”. In the circumstances, about all I can say (apart from urging you not to try to guess it) is that it adds a further level of overwhelming poignancy to an already extraordinarily affecting book.”

When is it available?

This novel is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight branch.

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