Kate Atkinson is a goddess. Besides the inimitable Margaret Atwood and the delightful Jess Walter, she is my favorite living writer. She’s a fearless risk-taker, smashing any sort of rule about what “literary” fiction can do. Her Jackson Brodie novels (Case Histories, etc.) are some of the best mysteries around, although they’re not categorized as such in my library. Her short stories in the collection Not the End of the World can be described as magical realism. I wouldn’t be surprised if she attempted (and mastered) a science fiction novel next.
Saturday night I finished her latest book, A God in Ruins. It’s a companion novel to 2013’s Life After Life. While that one focused on Ursula Todd, and her many lives before, during, and after WWII, this one centers on her younger brother Teddy.
It’s about love, death, duty, parents and children, aging, goodness, and the countless voices and lives that are silenced by war. (“The dead are legion” is a recurring phrase.) In her superb Author’s Note at the end, Atkinson says that the book is about two things: fiction and the Fall. (Of Man. From grace.)
War is Man’s greatest fall from grace, of course, especially perhaps when we feel a moral imperative to fight it and find ourselves twisted into ethical knots… the bottom line is that war is savage. For everyone. Innocent or guilty. This is a novel, not a polemic (and I am no historian) and I have accordingly left the doubts and ambiguities for the characters and the text to voice.
She may not be a historian, but reading this novel has given me a deeper grasp of the courage (in spite of any doubts) of the very young men and women who served in World War II in England.
And Teddy! I adored Teddy. He’s a truly good person, having made a promise that if he survived the war, he would live a good and kind life. He has a poet’s soul, he loves nature, he’s a patient and loving father and grandfather, and he’s a steadfast and calm leader as pilot of his bomber crews. (The scenes up in the air in the Halifax bombers he flies are truly exciting and interesting, by the way.)
I don’t think you necessarily have to have read Life After Life to appreciate A God in Ruins, but I think it adds an extra layer of enjoyment, seeing the same characters from another point of view. Personally, I feel that I must re-read Life After Life. While I loved and respected it, it was such a challenging book structurally that I feel like I just barely grasped it. With this one, I FELT it. I lived and breathed it. I missed it when I had to put it down. I could barely see the words as I read the last few pages, I was crying so hard. It spoke to me on a deep level as a book that wrestles with life’s beauty and sadness, love and mortality. I think (I hope!) that we will see this novel on many best-of and award-winning lists at the end of the year. Put yourself on the hold list at your library – or better yet, give Kate Atkinson your money- NOW!