Friday 21 October 2016

Enthralling: a slow start with a shocking finish

A God in Ruins By Kate Atkinson Doubleday (2015) €18.99 HHHHI

At the end of Life After Life, Atkinson's 2013 superb novel about the life and death and life (and death, and life) of Ursula Todd, Ursula's beloved brother Teddy, believed dead, turns up in a local pub.

The feeling of joy and relief was simply astonishing, and reaffirmed my belief in the power of the novel. Life After Life was one of my top 10 reads of that year, and when I heard that there was a book devoted to the lovely Ted coming out this year, I felt... trepidation.

I went back into the archives to see what I has written, and this quote from jumped out at me: "The key to the beauty and the inspiration of this narrative is the reality that our lives intertwine with those of others in ways we cannot imagine, and there is the possibility that in parallel universes, our choices are playing out, for good or ill."

Atkinson handled that complicated concept so well, that I truly was anxious about reading this novel.

Would it be as good? Would it be as engrossing? Would it tarnish the memory of its precursor? Was she going to once again do that thing where she was messing about with time?

I asked myself many, many more questions as a way of putting off cracking the covers - I can procrastinate with the best, but curiosity and my deadline did the job of getting me going, and I began to read.

Being back in Fox Corner with Teddy and his rackety, glorious family was an absolute pleasure. Atkinson immediately re-immerses us in the personalities and voices of the Todd family, and in the idyllic pastoral that is their tiny corner of an England between world wars.

We are then taken forward in time, to 1980 - so while we're not experiencing the initial disorientation of Ursula's story, in which she continually survived death and experienced different choices (in her penultimate act, she assassinates Hitler) we are seeing Teddy's life in a non-linear fashion, seeing how the past is always in the present, and how the future, while thought of and wondered about, is very much out of his control.


It is in the 80s that we meet Teddy's daughter Viola. The dislike into which I took this character was immediate, and I can't remember ever having reacted as strongly to a fictional creation.

A stunningly spoiled brat, she makes a mess of her life and of her children's lives, all the while convinced of her own entitlement in the world, a world that owed her for having lost her mum at an early age.

This is not to be taken lightly, but Atkinson makes it impossible to feel compassion for Viola, given everything we know about Teddy's life.

I began to dread the chapters that had to do with her and her choices and her sullenness, and greeted Teddy's return with relief - even the harrowing recounting of his service in World War II.

For me, this is where Atkinson's project became clear. We may be born of one another, and we may give birth or raise one another, we may grow up with one another, but we cannot know one another down to the marrow of one another's bones.

As well as we 'know' Teddy, we only do so because we are witnesses; as involved emotionally as we may become, we are still passive. It's fiction and we are like little gods watching it all unfold.

This makes it sound a tiny bit wet, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Atkinson has a sly sense of humour that primarily expresses itself in parenthetical reactions within the thoughts or statements of her characters.

Teddy might be reminiscing about something, whether about his childhood or his time in the war, and throughout will be interjected remarks either from other characters - Ursula figures largely here - or Teddy himself, allowing a hyper-textual commentary that binds everyone together, suggesting that we all contain not only our own omniscient-observer-within, but that we also carry around the thoughts and feelings of others, too.

Viola eventually becomes a celebrated novelist, and many of her asides have to do with quoting newspaper and magazine articles about herself and her work (priceless!).

Teddy and Viola are centre stage throughout the book, despite the presence of a large cast of characters, and while her daughter Bertie has a fairly significant presence, her son Sunny is shuffled off to the margins. Whether or not this makes conceptual sense (and it does), it feels like an unfortunate choice.

When he does return to the narrative, the transformation of his life, while satisfying, carries less weight. He's become a Buddhist yoga teacher, which feels like a terrible cliché, but certainly fits in with what becomes the driving theme of the novel: compassionate detachment.

Atkinson presents us with a veritable master class in compassion and detachment; but the reader does invest, the reader's heart does break - and the reader ultimately understands that we can't know what we aren't told, and that a life spent in reaction instead of response limits us to an almost inhumane ignorance of the hearts of others.

Even Viola becomes understandable from our standpoint outside the story - yes, even Viola is rendered teachable, and capable of reaching out.


And then: the author pulls the fictive rug out from underneath us, in a way I absolutely will not spoil, in a way that is as heartless as many believe the vengeful Old Testament God to be.

Once caught in its rhythm, it was all enthralling as what came before, without the uplifting finish.

The bitter-sweet, rather shocking ending will have its detractors, and I'm not sure even now that my heart has righted itself, but who are we to question the god-like powers of the author?

There's a feeling of resentment, as surely the reader must have thought they were sitting cheek by jowl on that cloud themselves, but no: ultimately, there was only one supreme being in charge of this narrative.

If you haven't experienced the joy of Life After Life, do it now, and then go on to this. While it is not as breathtakingly structured it is still enormously satisfying, and both taken together are two of the best books I've read in a long while.

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