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11 June 2015

Book Review: A God in Ruins

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Kate Atkinson so her style of non-linear chronology is new to me. I liked the way her structure allowed me to discover characters almost as if I was getting to know them in real life; when you meet someone, they don't just lay out their lives from day one in concise chronological order. The problem with memory is that chronology is the first thing to go so how we tell our stories to others often has the wandering, disjunct feel that this book has.

Disjunct is not a fair adjective, though, as I made the leap fairly easily from one time to another. I raised my eyebrow every time the omniscient narrator mentioned the future while telling the story of an earlier version of a person but, again, like when you tell a story, sometimes you throw in what will happen.

Fans of "Life After Life will recognize Teddy and Ursula (which version of Ursula this might be could be great fodder for conversation) but I won't delve into plot. Plot isn't what makes this book readable for me. It was the writing. The observations. The cogent asides.  All of which created moments of clarity about life and human nature. Finding clarity in a pull quote is one of the main reasons I read and Atkinson gave me that in abundance.

Things like:

"Good manners, the armour that one must don anew every morning."

"Teddy's idea of Utopia would not have included the Kibbo Kift. What would it have included? A dog, certainly. Preferably more than one. Nancy and his sisters would be there--his mother too, he supposed--and they would all live in a lovely house set in the green countryside of the Home Counties and eat cake every day. His real life, in fact."

"'Like' was hardly the word Teddy would have used for a time in his life when every day was fragile and seemed as if it might be his last on earth and the only tense was the present one because the future had ceased to exist even though they were fighting so desperately for it."

"It was true, in the last year or two he had begun to lose the thrifty habits he had once had, growing tired of the relentless culling and resolution that the material world demanded. Easier to let it pile up, waiting for the great winnowing of goods that his death would bring."

"A whole life could be contained in a dinner-service pattern."

"She was always looking to be given things, a cuckoo rather than a predator."

"He was currently living in a sordidly unruly flat with several members of his peer group, all too self-centered to qualify as friends."

"Every cloud has a silver lining. Conversely, every silver lining was in a cloud."

"Love had always seemed to Teddy to be a practical act as much as anything--school concerts, clean clothes, regular mealtimes."

Of course, later in the book, the good pull quotes were often roaming through the head of Viola, the writer, and her aside would be "A good phrase. She tucked it away," which pointed out the trite surfaceness of finding meaning in a pull quote. Almost as if Kate Atkinson is making fun of me. Which maybe she is. And rightly so.

I could have chosen to get angry about that. Just like I could have chosen to get angry about "THE LAST 15 PAGES."  But I didn't.

And don't keep reading if you don't want spoilers. But...

The title "A God in Ruins comes from an Emerson quote; ""A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be ... as gently as we awake from dreams."

That, and the first pull quote on the front cover flap, "He had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future," was a clue, if a clue in hindsight to what Atkinson was going to do to me as a reader. Trickery, Ms. Atkinson. Pure trickery! How dare you?

Teddy couldn't exist because the war devoured his innocence. It's as simple as that.

Atkinson says in her Author's Note, that if you asked her what this book was about, she'd say that "it's about fiction (and how we must imagine what we cannot know) and the Fall (of Man. From grace.)"

And there you are.

In the end, I have to admit that it's kind of silly to get mad about an author of fiction pulling a blind like this. After all, I was mad that these characters, who aren't real, aren't real. What sense does that make?

Fiction is always a lie that hints at a truth we have trouble finding by looking at our own lives. This book simply slaps you in the face with that.

And that's why it will be memorable. Good trickery, Ms. Atkinson.