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Kate Atkinson


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “A God in Ruins” a novel by Kate Atkinson

December 18, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 10.44.00 AMThere are novels that readers describe as thrillers, novels whose plots are complex but clear, novels of manners, and novels that grab the reader’s attention because they are so emotionally compelling. Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, “A God in Ruins,” is all of these. Ted Todd is an RAF pilot during the Second World War; he’s based in the northeast of England, and flies many bombing runs during the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Before the war he was a banker like his father Hugh, though, unlike his father, Teddy was not happy in that career. After the war Teddy comes home and marries Nancy Shawcross, the girl next door. He and Nancy both teach, and while Nancy is a success, Teddy is not, and he becomes a journalist, writing a column for, then becoming a reporter for, and finally running, a local newspaper.

This work leaves him a great deal of time to spend with their daughter Viola, who grows into an angry and somewhat self-destructive adult. In her twenties (by now we’re in the mid-1970s) she moves into a London squat with her partner and Sunny (a boy), their first child. They move on to a countryside cult where Viola has her second child, Bertie (a girl). When Viola has to run she brings the children home to Teddy. Bertie and Sunny adore him and, yes, we learn why Viola does not.

If these characters sound familiar, they should, because many of them appear in Atkinson’s previous novel, “Life After Life” (you can read my review of that novel here). “Life After Life” focused on Teddy’s adored older sister Ursula, and her experience during the war. Teddy and Ursula have two other siblings, Pamela, who makes a brief appearance here, and the pompous Maurice, who mostly stays offstage. Each novel stands on its own (in an afterward, Atkinson writes that she thinks of “A God in Ruins” as a companion to “Life After Life,” not a sequel). Nevertheless, the experience of reading each is deeper and more resonant for readers who read the other. (If you haven’t read “Life After Life” the order probably doesn’t matter but please weigh in on this question in the comments, especially if you disagree.)

Family life, sorrow, a good mind, pain–these are the plants that grow in Teddy’s garden. But it’s the substrate of the war that provides the soil, and Teddy’s experiences as a Halifax pilot are at the center of the novel. Atkinson’s text is vivid and lively; she slowly increases the tension as she describes the life of a bomber crew before, after, and especially during the slow and dangerous progress of a bomb run. Her meticulous descriptions are based on memoirs, and include details as small as the crew’s good luck charms and routines, and as large as the moral questions that followed from the decision to bomb German industrial centers and worker housing. The bombing may have been intended to avoid the need for the useless trench warfare of the Great War, and the Germans continued to bomb population centers like London, but neither of those is an adequate justification for Atkinson. For Teddy, the bombing campaign became a war of attrition, and the war became the central experience of his life. When he thinks about it, he concludes that the best and possibly only thing he can do to atone is to be kind. That’s not enough for Viola.

In “Life After Life” Atkinson trusted her readers to follow her through different permutations of a story, as she explored the ramifications of chances taken or passed by, and let consequences play out. “A God in Ruins” explores one of the roads not taken by the Todd family (or written there by Atkinson) and Atkinson provides signposts as she follows Teddy’s family through the decades succeeding the war. The ending is unexpected, heartbreaking (one friend described herself as “gobsmacked”) and breathtaking.

Read “A God in Ruins” but take it with you on a plane, or a vacation, or save it for a long weekend. You may not be able to stop reading it once you’ve started.

Happy Holidays! I’ll see you in the new year. In the meantime, have a book you want me to know about? Email me at Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

This post has been updated to include a missing link.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

November 8, 2013

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You are born, you live your life, you die. The universe appears to be ordered. As Albert Einstein once said, “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” For Ursula Todd, the central character of Kate Atkinson’s absorbing “Life After Life,” things operate a little differently. Ursula, the daughter of the warm but distant Hugh, a banker, and his sardonic wife, Sylvie, dies at birth. At least she does in one version of her story. But in the next and the next and the next she doesn’t, living a little longer each time. Atkinson uses her novel to explore the elements of chance in each life, the consequences each inconsequential choice, or the weather, or the haphazard explosion of a bomb might have on the lives of those around us.

Ursula is born in 1910. Her father is young enough to fight in the Great War; her younger brothers are old enough to fight in the Second World War. In most of her lives Ursula stays unmarried, though she has several lovers. In one life she is raped and undergoes an illegal abortion. She marries in two of her lives, once to an abuser, once to a German – and she adopts German citizenship. In several of her lives, Ursula studies in Germany in the 1930s, befriending a younger German woman named Eva Braun. That relationship gets her close enough to Hitler to point a gun at him in 1930.

Atkinson provides enough structure and chapter headings to allow the reader to make sense of things. That’s harder for Ursula, for whom time moves in a circle, because she is aware of other possible outcomes. She feels a fear, a darkening, a memory. Sometimes she is Cassandra-like, and her mother in particular is wary of her. Is it any wonder that Ursula tends to the detached, especially in her relationships with men? Her closest relationships are with family members. Ursula’s aunt, Isobel, provides an example of liberated behavior combined with deep consideration (it is Isobel who arranges the abortion). Ursula’s older sister, Pamela, settles into a conventional life of marriage and children despite an acute intelligence. And Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, is the light of her, and several others’, lives.

The book is not confusing, and Atkinson enriches each version of Ursula’s life with added detail. The reader is in essence in the same position as Ursula: we know that in one, or several, versions, that Teddy will not survive the Second World War. Yet in each version we uncover things we did not know. Did Isobel run away with a lover? Give birth to a son? Give him up for adoption? Let Sylvie raise him? In a remarkable achievement, Ursula’s uncertainty, as well as her knowledge, become the reader’s. “Life After Life” may not be for every reader, but if you enjoy ambiguity then read this book. (It would be good for a cross-country plane ride.) You’ll be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.

What do you think happened in that cafe in 1930? Let us know in the comments.

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