Recommended Reading: A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

photo (42)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:

* 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.]

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Recommended Reading: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I’d been lingering for two months on the library waitlist for Kate Atkinson’s new book, so it was with glee that I delved in to this 500+-page thumper.  Life after Life

I went in cold, and was blind-sided by the inventive structure. The novel attempts to answer that unanswerable question: what would you do if you could live your whole life over again? What would you change? How would you try to get it “right?”

You see, Ursula Todd, the novel’s lens and protagonist, can live her life over again, and not just once. This twist ensures that she also dies, over, and over, and over again, so many times that I lost count. She begins again at her birth (though sometimes, mercifully, Atkinson fast-forwards to another precipitous event), and, until she makes it past childhood, her first focus is to avoid the things that carried her off in those years: accident and illness.

Once she successfully navigates into adolescence, Ursula begins to recognize her peculiar form of reincarnation, and starts trying to prevent not only her own death, but those of her family and neighbors, and finally, even greater catastrophes. But she finds that every choice engenders unintended, often dangerous consequences.

I loved this book, not only for its unconventional, even experimental form, but also for its carefully-chosen language and attention to the details of time and place and families. If I had the chance to speak with Ms. Atkinson, I’d ask her how she kept track of the detailed strands of narrative; the continuity across times and lines of plot is striking.

And I’d ask how she decided when to stop the book, when in theory the variations could continue on and on.  And I’d ask her if she’d like the chance to live over and over again, or if once is enough. I’m asking myself that question right now.