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REVIEW: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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I loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and went on to devour her Jackson Brodie mystery series and her earlier novels, such as Behind the Scenes at theMuseum.  But I was thrilled to see that with A God In Ruins, she has revisited the characters from the Tod family of Life After Life.  The earlier novel focused on the life of Ursula Tod, and used a fascinatingly slippery time manipulation technique to do so;  this new novel describes the life of Ursula’s young brother, Teddy, a bomber pilot in WWII.  Though Atkinson structures this novel more conventionally, she still messes with flash forward and flashback in a rather dizzying manner, at least in the early going.

Did I mention that I loved this book?  One of those novels that, as you reach the end, you begin to ration the pages because you don’t want to leave that world.  The flat details are that A God In Ruins describes the life of Edward Tod, his marriage to Nancy, their awful daughter Viola, and her two children, Sunny and Bertie.  But the real trip is that this novel sees an author in full and joyous possession of her powers.  Atkinson can, seemingly, do anything. The character Viola made me cringe with recognition;  this woman is the embodiment of everything that is abhorrent about the boomer generation:  entitlement, self-absorption, thoughtless rebellion, irresponsibility, you name it.  I suspect that the author has so much fun with Viola because she is a boomer herself.  And yes, it’s that kind of fearless self mockery that, to me, gives this book its power. Atkinson can create a cringe-inducing character like Viola, place her in a provincial town on at stagette night, and have her charmingly rescued by a drunken troupe of women wearing penis headbands. Atkinson can allow Viola to become a successful writer, and to insert infuriatingly false quotes of self deprecation into the narrative:

“Prize-winning author Viola Romaine talks about her best-selling early novel.  ‘It’s never too late to pursue your dream,’ she tells us in this exclusive interview.”

“’L’enfer, c’est les autres,’ Viola Romaine laughs lightly, yet this is clearly not true as she writes with great sympathy about the human condition.”

And “’I was a terrible mother!’ she cries gaily, Mother and Baby magazine, 2007.” She certainly was, and is.

When Teddy gets Bertie’s hair cut in a simple style that she can look after herself, Viola fumes ”He was obsessed with self-sufficiency, of course, with people being responsible for themselves”.  This in light of the fact that, repeatedly, Teddy rescues Viola’s children when she abandons them in pursuit of her own agendas.

For me, this novel’s power is its sense of absolute authorial freedom– to see oneself and the world clearly and to play with that, with abandon and humour and wit and wisdom and respect and and and.  A God in Ruins is a treat.  Read it!

— JoAnn McCaig