Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson returns to her theme of “What If” in this companion volume to Life After Life in which we met Ursula Todd and many possible iterations of her life. Ursula’s brother Teddy and his family take center stage in this novel and the generation gap is caught beautifully as Atkinson articulates the view from Ted and that of his only daughter, Viola. Viola’s son and daughter, Sunny and Bertie, exhibit an equal distance from understanding their own mother’s life choices and personality.

Kate Atkinson adds an Author’s Note at the end of this story which tells us much of what she was communicating in this novel. “It is about fiction,” she tells us. “We must imagine what we cannot know.” Atkinson chose to look at the Second World War, and makes her central character an RAF airman. Teddy, we wonder at the end, does he even exist? That’s the thing about fiction. All that attention, care, and love lavished, and in the end, they are only characters on paper. But Atkinson caught enough truth in her writing that we know these characters, Ted, Viola, Sunny, are real enough within each of us.

What I like best about Atkinson’s work is her sense of humor about the tragedies of human life. She is a wonderful storyteller on the order of a Bruegel painting: large canvas, detailed figures not all doing the good and great thing. She gives us history, and we see the now, but we also get potential for the future. She does not leave us feeling that the thoughtful or erudite must be gloomy or humorless. With this two-book fiction, she gives us enough distance to see possible outcomes of decisions made now, and we always have the sense that we can change the outcomes if we don’t like where we’re headed. Her characters are complex enough to exhibit the petty and the grand. Once again, we always have a sense of possibility: character is malleable! We can change.

Atkinson tells us that this novel is “about fiction…and the Fall of Man from grace.” She indicates many references in the novel to Utopia, the Garden, the Way and then the falling, rising pattern of the characters, birds, planes correspond to what she is trying to convey. War is a fall from grace. And no matter how we frame the argument, innocents become victims. Atkinson reiterates that she is not a polemicist so wants her characters instead to express doubt and insecurity about the notion of the efficacy of war.

The thing about Atkinson’s fiction is that it is capacious enough to include the traditions of the past with the irresistible freshness and piquancy and social criticism of now. She does a marvelous job of telling a rip-snorting story at the same time she is urging caution. She was always a wonderful writer of fiction. She is in the process of becoming a great one.

A word about the audio production of this title: Hachette Audio did a brilliant job of producing this audio, read with terrific understanding by Alex Jennings. It is highly recommended. However, if one is familiar with Kate Atkinson's work, one will note that Atkinson has a tendency to move easily and quickly forward and back in time and between outlooks of various characters. One shift that was particularly difficult for me to catch in the audio was the story of Augustus. At the end, when I realized the importance of Augustus, I had to admit I didn't understand where he fit in. One glance at the paper copy set things straight for me since Augustus' story is set in different type in paper.


I recently listened to the NYTimes podcast of reviewer Tom Perrotta and Ruth Franklin talking about this book and I was struck by their insight that this book, in contrast to Life After Life, is about people who don't change very much at all: Viola, especially. Even though we know now that we can rewrite our lives, even our history, Viola holds on to old resentments and punishes herself and her family. Sunny seems to have taken the lessons of the earlier possibilities to heart, however.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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