Kate Atkinson’s 2013 highly inventive novel Life After Life was one of my favorites of the year, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating the publication of A God in Ruins*, which is not a sequel, exactly (I doubt such a thing is possible, given the peculiar structure of Life after Life), but what the author calls a “companion piece.”
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the first half of the twentieth century over and over again, with particular focus on her experience during the London Blitz. A God In Ruins is the story of her brother Teddy, who doesn’t share his sister’s reincarnation quirk. Instead, we’re witness to Teddy’s one life, from its Arcadian beginnings at the family home, Fox Run, to his experience as an RAF bomber pilot during the war, and on to his marriage and relationships with his daughter and grandchildren. The story is told non-chronologically, all the pieces slowly falling into place and weaving together the stuff of one good man’s life.
For Teddy is a good man, a person who does his best under the terrible circumstances of war and the unexpectedly difficult circumstances of post-war family life. It’s a book about the loss of innocence, but it reaches deeper than the bildungsroman it certainly could have been to pull us into a the long decades of life. Teddy is sometimes mystified by what life has shown him, in particular by the behavior of his daughter Viola; she’s a delectably unlikeable character, but one who is shown compassion by her father, and ultimately, the author.
I loved this book; despite its unusual chronological structure, it had the feel of an old-fashioned novel, if that makes sense. Distinct motifs, wry humor, and affecting imagery run through the text, which made for an enjoyable, engaging reading experience, even when the subject matter is difficult.
And on another note, I loved the book for personal reasons. As I mentioned above, Teddy is the pilot of a Halifax bomber, and the descriptions of the terrifying flights to Germany (and other targets) are visceral, clearly informed by research and first-person interviews (Ms. Atkinson provides a helpful bibliography). My grandfather, who is 94, younger than Teddy would be (were he a real person) was the navigator on a B-17 during the war, and this book reinforced for me his bravery and sacrifice, and his modesty.
A God in Ruins is one of several excellent, recent books about the Second World War, books like All the Light We Cannot See, The Evening Chorus, and Ms. Atkinson’s own Life After Life. I hope to see this constellation of historical fiction grow.
If you know a veteran of World War II, you might consider helping to preserve history by participating in one of these oral history projects:
- The Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project
- The National WWII Museum (Oral Histories & Personal Accounts)
- Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (affiliated with the LoC)
- In addition, some newspapers run regular columns about veterans’ experiences, and many run interviews with veterans in conjunction with major historical anniversaries (D-Day, Pearl Harbor, Veterans Day, and so on).
* I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.
[Note to the Dear Readers: I’m trying an experiment this week wherein the weekly poetry post appears on Thursday and the usual book review/recommendation appears on Tuesday. I’m pretty confident that this will affect absolutely nobody’s life, but if you hate or love the new arrangement, please let me know.]