She had me at the start, with her extraordinary Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Some readers like her Jackson Brodie series best, but this current “companion pair” of novels are at the top of my list.
She’s incredibly clever, is Kate Atkinson. She’s like some kind of all-knowing Time Lord, in total control of all things time-related. It’s as nothing to skip from one moment in time to another, be they decades apart or just seconds. She never loses control of the thread that holds these fragments together, ultimately drawing them carefully into a coherent whole.
Atkinson’s previous book, Life After Life, was complicated enough, where the key character Ursula was given many chances to get her life and her mission just right.
But A God in Ruins – described by Atkinson as a companion book to its predecessor rather than a sequel – is a whole different kind of time challenge, this time focusing on the life of Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy.
The story is like a massive memory spiral. Each piece is directly attached to the next in some way, even though that piece might happen decades earlier or later, which is just how memory works. Some aspect of what happens triggers another thought, and then another, all attached to each other by a process that has nothing to do with linear time, but everything to do with following one spark in what might seem an obscure way. The garden path has its attractions.
The first time we see, for example, an Arts and Crafts sideboard is in the background as Teddy’s life is being downsized into a retirement village flat. But then there that sideboard is again as a sidebar in another part of the story, arriving for the first time in his life, with its own history and importance. And there it is later, mourned for other reasons entirely.
And so it is also with the little silver hare, a good luck charm that carries over from Life After Life, popping up in different lives and places with a logic that is only clear at the end.
Teddy’s is a long and sprawling life – a decorated war-time bomber pilot, gardener, writer and prisoner of war; son of the mysterious Sylvie, husband to the practical Nancy, father to the difficult Viola, adoring granddad to Bertie and Sunny. The story skips from scene to scene, from his life to those closest to him. It is often clear how the world would change completely if different choices were made, or certain actions delayed. In this, it has strong echoes of Life After Life.
WWII is equally central to both books, though in different ways. Teddy’s career as a bomber pilot – how he got there and what it did to the rest of his life – is the core of it. This gentle, brave man stole my heart long before the end, and made me so sad too.
I understand many people liked this book less than Life after Life, and I understand Life After Life polarised people (I was in the “loved it” category). But I loved this one too. Everything connects; you pull one thread and you see it run through every page and story and character, in a way that is both completely inevitable and eerily random.
Book published May 2015