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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 480 pages, $28

British author Kate Atkinson wrote the Jackson Brodie private investigator series. I use the term “series” loosely, since Jackson barely appears in some of the books. Beginning with “Case Histories,” Atkinson’s series is quirky and full of insight, human drama, and plot twists. Life after the series hasn’t been too shabby for Atkinson. Her “Life After Life,” the previously published companion to “A God in Ruins,” was nominated for various awards, won the Costa Award, and appeared on “best books of the year” lists, but it would be a far stretch to call it a mystery. So, too, “A God in Ruins” is a surprising novel done with her trademark twists, but it is not a mystery either.

“Life After Life” followed various permutations in the life of Ursula Todd. In many of her lives, she does not survive childhood. In another, she lives long enough to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In most of the stories, Ursula enjoys the company of siblings. Teddy Todd is one of her younger brothers, and “A God in Ruins” is his story. While “Life” and “God” are intertwined through the siblings, Atkinson’s purpose and tenor are different in each. Atkinson states in an afterword that Ursula’s life in “God” is different than any depicted in “Life.” 

That is not to say that Teddy’s story is told in a linear stream, any more than Ursula’s was in “Life.” However, for the most part, Teddy just has one life to live. We learn about Teddy in snippets that move back and forth in time. At the center is when Teddy was a World War II pilot. His philosophy, optimism, and view of human nature were profoundly influenced by what he saw and did. This is a quiet and gentle existential novel.

Linearally speaking, Teddy grows up in a big family, his mother is a clueless upperclass woman, he marries the girl next door after a distinguished wartime career as a pilot, his only daughter, Viola, is a self-involved hippie, and his grandchildren are searching for their purpose in life.

Does it diminish the anxiety when reading about Teddy’s wartime exploits to know that he lives to a ripe old age? No. Does it affect how we feel about Teddy when we see Viola’s vapid character exposed? No. Are we confused about the timeline? Atkinson takes great pains to make sure there are reference points, so the answer is no. Some excursions back in time are expressed as reminiscences and sometimes the steps forward are parenthetical, so you know how karma bit someone in the posterior (or not). But mostly various periods of time take turns as the main focus, with discursions and parentheses to take the reader forward or backward from that point. It sounds confusing, but it isn’t. That’s a mark of how good Atkinson is.

The last fifty or so pages are worth their weight in gold. It is the end of the line for Teddy, and Atkinson handles it poignantly and with dignity.

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