You could be forgiven for feeling that you’ve read enough about Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it is, after all, everywhere you look in the reviews pages – so do feel free to skip this. I’ve been looking forward to reading A God in Ruins since I first heard about it: for me, it’s one of the publishing events of the year, as I’m sure it is for many others, and can’t be ignored. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this new novel is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads.
We first meet Teddy in 1925 when he’s eleven years old, gently quizzed by his Aunt Izzie about what he gets up to and what he enjoys. She’s the author of the Adventures of Augustus series, and Teddy is her Augustus. From there Atkinson jumps to 1980 and commune-dwelling Viola, Teddy’s daughter, a hippie after her time who tetchily scolds her two children, Sun and Bertie, while their father swims out to sea, leaving her to it. Atkinson’s narrative crisscrosses the twentieth century telling Teddy and his family’s story: his years as a Second Word War bomber pilot; his life with his beloved wife Nancy in Yorkshire – she a teacher, he writing nature notes for a local journal; Viola’s misadventures and her career as a successful novelist; Sun and Bertie’s ragtag childhood and its consequences. The novel takes us to 2012, the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the end of Teddy’s story.
Hard not to gush about this extraordinary novel. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative: it’s all beautifully stitched together. I began noting down particularly choice quotes for this review but had to give up, there were so many. Here are just a few: gazing at a photograph of her son ‘Sylvie ran her finger over the silver frame, intending fondness but finding dust’; ‘A tempest brewed in his squally heart. He might explode. That would serve his mother right’ (what child hasn’t thought that?); ‘”Almost as good as Jodi Picoult”, Mumsnet.’ was my favourite of the many barbed little quotes about Viola’s novels. It’s peppered with bracketed laconic asides – ‘”I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight,”, the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)’ – and is often very funny but its central subject is a deadly serious one. The passages devoted to Teddy’s bombing raids are played straight – graphic, gripping and extraordinarily believable, they’re based on Atkinson’s readings of many first-hand accounts and they are the guts of the book. It’s something that Teddy never talks about, just as Nancy never talks about her Bletchley days, but they have made him the man he becomes: gentle, reverential of nature, a loving grandfather, a man who wants nothing more than to sit quietly on the sidelines of a life which sometimes puzzles and perplexes him. Ursula is there, of course, with just one life: ‘a single professional woman in post-war London’. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end and must surely be awarded a multitude of prizes.