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A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins - Kate Atkinson Their names written on water. Or scorched into the earth. Or atomized into the air. Legion.

Have you ever read a book that you hated to put down but also hated to keep reading because you couldn’t bear the thought of reaching the end? That’s how I felt reading Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, the companion to her brilliant Life After Life

Unlike Ursula in Life After Life, her younger brother Teddy only gets one shot at life. He still becomes a bomber pilot during World War II, still gets shot down over Germany, but this time he survives, captured and imprisoned for the last 18 months of the war. When he returns home, he marries childhood sweetheart Nancy and sets out to live a quiet, uncomplaining life as an antidote to his horrific experiences of the war, both on the ground and in the air, which take up a good portion of this book as a counterpoint to Ursula’s accounts of the Blitz of London in the first book. Nothing really turns out the way he might have hoped, but he holds his very best stiff-upper-lip to the very end even as he struggles with not knowing whether he’s done the right thing: during the war, in his marriage, with his daughter and grandchildren. 

Atkinson gives her readers a lot of little Easter eggs from the first book, and many of the characters have returned, though aside from Teddy and Nancy, they’ve been mostly pushed into the background. Thankfully, Ursula makes plenty of appearances, as do his mother Sylvia and aunt Izzie, and we even get to read some of Izzie’s The Adventures of Augustus, her book series based on young Teddy. These books-within-a-book are a running theme throughout as Teddy wonders what the eternally young Augustus would have done with his life had he been allowed to grow up.

As Teddy looks back at his life, there’s a powerful sense of melancholy rather than nostalgia for “the good ole days”. He reflects on the many friends and family members he’s lost, thinking of them fondly and often, but he never falls into the trap of wishing he could go back again. He remembers — the horrors of war, the sudden and tragic loss of life, the maddening sense of futility — and he knows too well that most others do not. While on a visit to a military cemetery with his grandson, Teddy reflects on how the younger generations have no concept of what total war was really like. “They had been brought up without shadows and seemed determined to create their own.” I’ve often had a similar thought over the last few years, with people’s willingness to forego vaccinations for their kids and to embrace openly nationalist political candidates. Is our collective memory so damaged that we’re willing to risk taking such huge steps backwards?

I have no way of knowing how A God in Ruins stands up on its own, but I’m glad I read Life After Life first, if only that it gave me the full, glorious experience. Atkinson has given us a massive gift with this pair of books, taking what could have been an overwrought gimmick and crafting it into a thoughtful, artistic masterpiece.

(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)