A God in Ruins: A Review

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonTeddy could have been a poet or a banker. Instead war intervened and he became an RAF bomber pilot. Those years spent bombing German civilians, never knowing if he’d live through his next mission, were the best years of his life–the best moments–even with the violence, the death, and his time as a POW.

But everyone has to return to the ground eventually and when the war ends, Teddy becomes a husband and a father, a journalist, and more. But his hardest role even all those years later will be living in a future he never thought he’d see in A God in Ruins (2015) by Kate Atkinson.

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Readers of Atkinson’s previous powerhouse novel Life After Life will recognize protagonist Teddy as Ursula Todd’s favorite brother–a figure she worked across multiple lives to save when he is declared missing in action and presumed dead after a failed bomb run. While both books function separately, it is unlikely readers will catch all of the nuance and subtleties of this novel without reading Life After Life first.

Teddy only has one life so this novel does not explore the same themes of reincarnation although Atkinson uses the same nonlinear structure with multiple points of view to excellent effect.

From here on this review will have some spoilers for the rest of the book, proceed with caution:

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Life After Life: A Review

“This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes perfect.”

Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonOn February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd is born. She is not breathing. Dr. Fellowes is not there.

Darkness falls.

On February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd draws her first breath and begins a wholly unexpected life.

Darkness falls.

Hugh, her dear and prosaic father, enlists in the Great War. Long years later he comes home to his stoic and often inscrutable wife. Ursula dies during the ensuing influenza pandemic.

Darkness falls.

Again and again Ursula lives and dies and live once more. She keeps trying, keeps learning until there will be no mistakes in a life spanning both world wars and beyond. As Ursula tries to save the world she begins to understand that the first step, the bigger step, may be saving everyone she loves. For a person who gets more than one life, practice makes perfect in Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life is a stunning achievement. The plot of this novel spans decades and crosses multiple timelines, all in a nonlinear format following multiple characters in close third person. This structure and Atkinson’s prose create a distinct structure and a reading reading experience that rewards close attention.

This character driven story raises questions of ethics, familial loyalty, and identity. As Ursula lives multiple lives she and readers see how different choices play out and their long lasting ramifications for Ursula and the rest of the Todd family which notably includes Teddy, the protagonist of Atkinson’s companion novel A God in Ruins.

That is not to say Life After Life is an entirely comfortable novel. Many of the characters are products of their times with the related casual sexism and more overt anti-Semitism. While this makes sense for the time period and (some of) the characters, it is never interrogated in the story despite the often omniscient narrator watching the story unfold at a remove. Because of the multiple timelines, some events are explored from multiple lenses while others including many of Sylvie’s motivations are barely examined.

Life After Life is truly exceptional on a craft level with fantastic writing and a singular family. Readers interested in characterization, WWII, and world building will find a lot to enjoy here.

Fans of this volume should tread lightly before picking up the companion novel A God in Ruins which offers a very different, and far less satisfying, reading experience.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick