Friday, May 29, 2015

Historical Fiction: A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

In the author's note for this week's selection, A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson mentions that she would rather think of this book as more of a companion piece rather than a sequel to its predecessor, Life After Life. In it, the story follows the life of Teddy, Ursula Todd's little brother, as he deals with unexpectedly surviving the war and living a life beyond it.

The Situation: Edward Theodore Todd, or Teddy, is the fourth of five children, and it is pretty much accepted by everyone in the family that he is his mother's favorite. So it quite naturally breaks her heart when he goes off to fight in World War II, becoming a competent and respected bomber for Britain's Royal Air Force. After three tours, the last of which he didn't expect to survive, even becoming a prisoner of war for a short time, he comes back home in order to start having the future he didn't expect he would get to have. But soon comes marriage, a child, and eventually grandchildren. Of course, Teddy must also endure all of the tragedies that life insists on bringing us. And as he continues to live on, even while those he was once close to begin to die off, he will always occasionally reminisce about his time in the war, wondering if what he did, what they all did, was justified. Was he a hero? Was he a murderer? Was he simply following orders?

The Problem: While A God In Ruins is more or less Teddy's life story, the one problem that seems to stick with him throughout the story would be his daughter, Viola. Having each grown up as one of five children, both Teddy and his wife Nancy had imagined they would also have a large family. And Teddy naturally thought that family would include a few sons. So the appearance of Viola, along with the knowledge that she would be the only one making an appearance, already put Teddy somewhat off-balance. But he also wasn't expecting her to become the selfish, entitled, passive-aggressive nightmare that she would become in childhood, and continue to be even after growing up and having children of her own. It's bad enough that memories of the war have stuck with Teddy, now he also has a daughter who either doesn't want to hear about them, or wants to blame men like her father for bombing innocent people. Viola resents her father at eery turn, especially after Nancy's death. Ultimately, Teddy must try his best to live a life he didn't expect to have, but one he is still ultimately quite grateful for. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that is also a Bildungsroman. Teddy's life story is told through sections divided up by certain time periods. While each section is labeled as to which year it covers, the sections do not appear in order. Also, even within a section that is supposed to be about 1942, there will be some discussion about events that happened in the past, as well as events that will happen in the future. And while the entire book is about Teddy, some sections focus on other people, such as Teddy's wife Nancy, his daughter Viola, his grandson Sunny, or his granddaughter Bertie. While Life After Life focused quite a bit on the childhood of the Todd family, A God In Ruins focuses more on Teddy's life after he has left his childhood home, starting with his involvement in the war. In the author's note, Atkinson mentions the many lives that Ursula lived in Life After Life, and asserts that the story in A God In Ruins is another one of Ursula's lives, one that wasn't covered in the previous book. So really, there could be a few books that tell the story of Teddy's life, each with a different outcome.

My Verdict: A God In Ruins is certainly more straightforward than Life After Life, mostly because the main character isn't forced to relive the same events over and over again. But this second book is also somehow less straightforward than the first due to the events of Teddy's life being told out of order. And one section may reference another, even if the referenced events may not have happened yet. That did cause some confusion for me, but ultimately all of the details end up sorted out. And without the novelty of the main character living her life over and over, I was wondering how interesting a book that is seemingly about WWII would be. But Atkinson proved to be able to tell a great story, even without a character that doesn't have any special sort of time traveling ability. Much like Life After Life ended up nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award in the Best Historical Fiction category (which it ended up winning), I expect the same to happen for this book. It is a book that goes into detail about the bombers of WWII without becoming either depressing or tedious. I think it deserves some sort of award just for accomplishing that alone.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any time Viola reaped what she had sown, which is often, because she sows a lot.

Favorite Character: It isn't hard to see why Teddy was always his mother's favorite. In his younger days he is very much a "good boy," and he grows up to be a good man, much to his daughter Viola's annoyance. He is far from perfect and has his own flaws, but some of his worst traits are better than many of our best ones. 

Recommended Reading: While it isn't completely necessary to read Life After Life before A God In Ruins, it would certainly help as it would introduce many of the characters in this book that aren't given a whole lot of attention. Plus, as I mentioned before, the previous book gives a full picture of Teddy's childhood, something almost completely left out of this one. 

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