Review: ‘A God in Ruins’


(The following may contain spoilers. Or not.)

I’m not sure what to make of “A God in Ruins.”

For the first 440 pages, I loved it. I was enthralled with it. I found it hard to put down, even though the sections about Viola, the self-centered daughter of protagonist Teddy, were hard to get through. (She’s a most unpleasant character.)

But the chapters about Teddy were wonderful: a man who had been a World War II fighter pilot but didn’t think of himself as heroic, living out an unexciting middle-class life in war’s aftermath. He wondered — through Atkinson’s clipped, brilliant writing — about the cities and the people he bombed. He cared about dogs and flowers. He loved his wife and his daughter, though neither love was reciprocated in just the way he’d hoped.

He was, or tried to be, a good man.

Some of this could have been treacly if it hadn’t been for Atkinson, who proved her ingenuity with the earlier “Life After Life,” to which “A God in Ruins” is a companion. She effortlessly switches back and forth in time, from character to character, giving everything from a Yorkshire farmhouse to the inside of a warplane vivid color. Teddy’s wartime adventures are as gripping and chilling as his postwar life is quietly desperate, but both are invested with meaning, thanks to Atkinson’s prose.

She even pulls off the trick of making her unpleasant characters sympathetic, if not fully pleasant. (Viola again.) She manages to turn non-speaking objects — trees, hares — into something richer than symbols.

So what’s the problem?

I didn’t like the ending.

Call me sentimental, but I think Atkinson’s ending is a cop-out. I’m not going to reveal it, but the first 440 pages were so good that the last 15 were a letdown.

I might let another author get away with what she does, but Atkinson had proven herself so inventive that I was confident her abilities would bring the book home. Instead — though I understand her point — the ending was the author living up to her own ideals, not the characters’. If that seems churlish, see what you think when you read it. Because you should read it anyway.

Funny … I think “A God in Ruins” is a more well-rounded book, but I finally enjoyed “Life After Life” more. Amazing the difference those final moments make. In literature, if not life, they can make sense of the whole.

(4.5 out of 5)


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