A wonderful thing about geekily organising my books in alphabetical order is that when I look at my shelves, the first authors I see are Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood and Jane Austen. A sight to bring joy to any book lover’s heart.
Jane Austen has taught me so many things about reading and writing. One lesson, however, I learned the hard way. As a teenager I raced through her entire oeuvre at a rate of knots. I’m now in the very sad position of never being able to read an Austen novel for the first time. I can, and do, re-read her wonderful books and am always finding new joys in them, but I like to think she also taught me to be restrained. It’s a lesson I’ve put into practice when reading Margaret Atwood. I still haven’t read ‘Maddaddam,’ and I’m proud of that fact. To quote a previous post, ‘I never want to live in a world in which there are no new Atwood novels for me to read’.
I had been doing well with Kate Atkinson, smug in my self control and happy to nod in a knowing way when everyone started raving about ‘A God in Ruins’. Of course it was great! What did people expect? It was Atkinson! The problem is that smugness often conceals insecurity – what if this was the book in which Atkinson failed to delight? What if I was building up my expectations too much and was only heading for disappointment?
I suppose when a publicly stated resolution is broken, the only thing left is to be honest about it. I realised I couldn’t resist any longer. I’ve read ‘A God in Ruins’. In doing so, I challenged myself as a reader, a reviewer and a highly judgemental fan.
My first impression on starting ‘A God in Ruins’ was joy at Atkinson’s trademark readability. Her prose is dazzlingly easy to read: fluid, intelligent and without a single false step. This should have been enough to guarantee my enjoyment. And yet. I’ve read great Atkinson before, in fact, I frequently re-read my favourite passages from her earlier books whenever I’m in need of a virtuosic prose pick-me-up. If I was going to break a reading resolution I wanted it to be for something new, not more of the same.
Then I started playing a game that fans should always avoid – spotting references to previous, early works. There was thinly disguised biography masquerading as fiction (‘Emotionally Weird’), glamorous and enigmatic women (‘Human Croquet’), favouritism in the family (‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ and ‘Case Histories’), hippy communes (‘Emotionally Weird’ again), domestic abuse and neglect (‘Life After Life’), unlovable sons (‘Human Croquet’), yoga moments with estranged children who go off to live on the other side of the world (‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’). Of course, all of these elements work well in ‘A God in Ruins’ but the reminders were taking me out of the story rather than immersing me in it. The novel was enjoyable, but I was wondering if this was possibly a book for non-fans, an introduction to Atkinson rather than a summation of her talents…
And then I got to end and realised how wrong I was on every count. I’d remembered the content of Atkinson’s craft, but forgotten to give her credit for her final skill. She is the master of the surprise ending. As in all of her previous works, you get to the punch-line and suddenly feel the need to re-read the whole thing again to see how you managed to miss all the clues. They were there all along! Sadly you were too busy feeling smug about recognising superficial tropes. Apologies for the use of the second person pronoun there, I’m hoping I wasn’t the only reader who was so humbled by this book.
‘A God in Ruins’ is a wonderful novel. The structure is sublime. In her exploration of post-war trauma, Atkinson depicts an evocatively distorted world in which mundane cruelty and selfishness are even more distressing as they can be compared with pre-war innocence and bliss. As a boy, we’re told Teddy’s idea of Utopia ‘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.‘ The war changes everything, from practicalities to mentalities; Teddy’s descendants will live in hells of their own and others’ making. Character traits such as being charmingly selfish will mutate into callous and unrewarding obsessions. Even literature, so often the redemption of depressed literary characters will become turgid at best, cruelly insensitive at worst.
‘A God in Ruins’ would show Kate Atkinson to be a writer at the top of her game, but her previous books are evidence that her game has never slipped. Continually inventive, brilliantly written and superbly structured, I recommend all of her novels. She is the kind of writer who makes me grateful to be alive and reading in the 21st century. Now, if only she’ll write two more books quickly so that I can read one and hold the other in reserve…