I thought Kate Atkinson’s previous novel , the Costa Award winning “Life After Life” (2013) was terrific. I’ve recommended it many times but the feedback I get back can be mixed. Some readers find the author’s structure off-putting. Main character Ursula meets with many deaths on her way through the book, reliving parts of her life in different ways in a novel where “practice makes perfect” is an underlying theme. I personally loved the structure, the rich and memorable cast and the superb sense of the era, especially the years of World War II.
These years also provide the main focus of this novel, more of a companion piece than any kind of sequel as we revisit the lives of the Todd family through Ursula’s brother, Teddy. This time, structurally, it’s far more straightforward. It moves around chronologically but Teddy, unlike his sister in “Life After Life” has one life to live.
During the war Teddy is a fighter pilot and it is the author’s recreation of his everyday battle for survival which packs a potent punch. He is a wonderful character and I love the way the author has developed him with this outing. He really comes alive on the page, especially as a caring grandfather when his war heroics are barely ever discussed by the family.
I did feel that it was the unusual structure that helped the last book to sizzle and I was concerned initially that this more conventional approach but using some of the same characters might pale in comparison. It is different but it certainly does not disappoint. I was totally involved throughout and taken aback by the novel’s depth and richness. It stands alone from its predecessor and those who like Atkinson’s writing but found its stop-start technique wearying are urged to give this a go.
Within both of these novels Kate Atkinson has taken pains to remind us that we are experiencing fiction and there is a bit of toying with us as readers to bring this home. What we have here is a writer in superb control of her craft. Her next novel, due later this year, will take us in a different direction and it would be good if, in the meantime, I could catch up with her four books featuring detective Jackson Brodie (of which I’ve only read the first so long ago that it will need revisiting).
With “A God In Ruins” Kate Atkinson also won the Costa Novel Of The Year. On the evidence of this pair of celebrated novels she is one of our finest living novelists writing at the height of her powers.
A God In Ruins was published by Doubleday in 2015. I read the 2016 Black Swan paperback edition.