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A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has been writing novels for some time – winning the 1995 Whitbread Award for Book of the Year for her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She carried on to write a series of mystery novels that were made into a television series – all excellent.

As much as I enjoy reading mystery novels I was very glad a couple of years ago when Kate Atkinson returned to literary fiction with her novel Life After Life – a book I loved, loved, loved. Now, just a few years later Kate Atkinson’s new novel A God in Ruins has been published and she re-visits the Todd family, this time focusing on Teddy. Teddy, who is just exactly the right age to be sent to war.

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Teddy becomes a pilot – a very good one. When the war ends he is surprised to discover that he has survived, and having done so resolves “he would always try to be kind”. “Life and death are completely random, that much I have learned”, his sister, Ursula, says. How else to explain it when some glorious young person dies while some old “so and so” lives to be 100.

About half way through this book, reading about Teddy’s wartime experiences as a pilot leading very dangerous bombing missions over Germany, I thought about all of the men who are now elderly – but were once daring young men who gave up their youth for the freedom we are so fortunate to have now in this country. My husband is a member of a Toronto club – we were young when he joined and most of the members were the age we are now, and older. There were many times when I sat beside a club member and listened to the stories of a gunner or a pilot who served in Europe during the Second World War. Kate Atkinson’s research and writing brings this time to life – the reality of very possibly not living another day – day after day.

A God in Ruins re-visits some of the characters from Life After Life, filling in more of their stories, but also bringing us new ones. The story weaves seamlessly back and forth, between Teddy’s childhood in the 1920s, his war years, and the years that follow into the present time. He becomes a husband, father and grandfather.

Teddy’s daughter, Viola, is a post-war baby, and later a young woman who could do anything she chooses. However, she struggles to find her place in the world, and the neglect of her children causes her father much unhappiness.  Teddy’s family, especially his grandchildren, becomes the centre of his life in his later years.  He hopes they find the happiness that evaded his daughter.

Happily, for the reader, Kate Atkinson follows this family, and the children well into their adult years - not leaving us to wonder about their future. A God in Ruins is a more straightforward novel than Life After Life but equally as beguiling and very, very satisfying in every way.


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