Let me start out by saying that Kate Atkinson is one of my writing heroes. I love the way that she twists her plots and just when you think you’ve worked it all out, there’s another twist, sometimes on the last page. Her Jackson Brodie novels are my favourites (unsurprisingly given the crime genre) but ‘Life After Life’ runs an extremely close second. Wait a minute, you say, this review is for ‘A God In Ruins’. Yes, indeed it is but you can’t review the latter without looking at the former first. In fact, I would say that in order to understand ‘A God In Ruins’, you have to read ‘Life After Life’ first.
‘Life After Life’ is, as the title suggests, the recurring lives of Ursula Todd. Ursula appears to be stuck in a cyclical journey of birth, death and rebirth. But unlike reincarnation, it is her own life that she continually returns to, apparently learning from her previous mistakes. She doesn’t actually remember each life but there’s a whisper or sixth sense that tells her to take or not take a certain path. It is the most brilliant book and it was a struggle to put it down. I marvelled too at the plotting of the story (how did she do it?!) and it’s one of those novels that I think will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Atkinson considers ‘A God in Ruins’ as a companion book, more than a mere sequel to ‘Life After Life’. In the author notes she explains that she wanted to write a book about World War Two, focusing on the areas that fascinated her the most – the Blitz and the bombing campaign of Germany. She explores the Blitz through Ursula’s eyes but it was apparent to her that there was too much material for just one book. So she explores the bombing campaign through Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, a pilot in Bomber Command.
Naturally though, Kate Atkinson doesn’t stick with a conventional timeline and Teddy’s life is explored in different time periods with episodes from before the war, during and after, interweaving together. There are also sections that are seen from others’ viewpoints – Nancy, his wife; Viola, his daughter; Sunny, his grandson and Bertie, his granddaughter.
I have to confess that I didn’t find A God In Ruins as compelling as Life After Life. I preferred having Teddy as the narrator although the chapter from Sunny’s viewpoint had me in tears and I would have liked to know more about him. Sadly, I can’t say the same about his mother, Viola, who is truly vile. But there is a lovely section where I suspect Atkinson is doing a little self-mocking:
‘She [Viola] wished she had asked him about his war when he was still compos mentis. She might have been able to use his memories as the basis of a novel. One that everyone would respect. People always took war novels seriously.’
And that’s what I love about Kate Atkinson. She never takes herself too seriously. She’s not pretentious. There is always humour shot through her books. And of course, just when I thought that this would be a four star book for me, she pulled it out of the bag, right at the very end, with, in her own words, ‘a bit of trickery.’
So, in conclusion, ‘A God In Ruins’ gets five stars from me. I have no idea what Kate Atkinson is working on next but I do hope it’s another Jackson Brodie novel. Go on Kate, just for me.