Friday 30 September 2016

Engrossing tale of life after second world war

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson

From the very first pages, I was captivated. Behind the Scenes at the Museum was narrated by the all-seeing 17-year-old Ruby Lennox, who fantasised about her own funeral and drew the reader into the past to uncover the unusual history of her family.

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I wasn't alone in my admiration. Kate Atkinson's debut beat off strong competition from Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sign to win the Whitebread Book of the Year in 199. I have since continued to be a fan, eagerly anticipating each new novel including her latest A God in Ruins.

However, while her second and third books, Emotionally Weird and Human Croquet, did intrigue me, they didn't hold quite the same allure as her debut work.

Atkinson changed tack and turned her pen to crime fiction in the wonderful Case Histories, which introduced the world to Jackson Brodie, the former police inspector turned private investigator who had spent a lifetime hunting down 'lost girls', driven by the murder of his teenage sister in the Sixties. Jackson appeared again in relatively swift succession in One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News and Started Early Took My Dog.

Then Atkinson surprised her readers again with the stunning Life After Life, in which she plays with time. Her heroine Ursula Todd is born into a well-to-do British family on February 11, 1910, only to come to an untimely death shortly afterwards.

But that's only the start of Ursula's story as Atkinson repeatedly allows her to die and be reborn - and each time, the narrative arc of her life is on a slightly different course, giving the novel a sense of infinite possibility as the key historical events of the first half of the 20th century unfold.

Four of Ursula's untimely deaths were as a result of the influenza outbreak of 1918, and during one bout, her beloved brother Teddy also died. Fortunately for Atkinson's many fans, he got a second chance, and in her latest work, A God In Ruins, the companion to the Costa award-winning Life After Life, rather than its sequel.

Unlike his sister, it seems that Teddy - a would-be poet, RAF bomber pilot, a husband and a father - has just one life to live, and initially the charms of A God In Ruins seem slight in comparison to its inventive and ambitious predecessor.

The novel initially appears choppy, unfocused, as it shifts seemingly randomly from event to event, from the chaos of World War II to a quiet corner of Britain in 1925 and then to 1980 - where Teddy's daughter, Viola, is reluctantly raising her two children in a commune. And this time-travel continues throughout the chapters.

But it's not long before its allure takes hold. Teddy's life spans almost 100 years, and Atkinson shares his life and perspective with those of his wife, daughter, grandson and granddaughter.

In the author's notes, Atkinson reveals that she was particularly interested in two aspects of World War Two: London during the Blitz and the bombing raids on Germany.

The former is addressed in Life After Life, while Teddy's lucky career as a bomber pilot moves the focus on to the latter. Atkinson's impressive research means that this is the heart of the novel, where Teddy truly comes alive in the midst of so much death.

The horrors of war are not romanticised: instead Atkinson shows how its effects reverberate through the decades. Teddy's post-war life is quiet, ordinary, disappointing. His daughter never forgives him for the loss of her mother. His valour is not rewarded.

It may be a companion to Life After Life, but A God In Ruins deserves to be judged on its own merits. As such, it's an engrossing read by any standards. One that kept me up late at night to discover what would happen next.

Fiction

A God In Ruins

Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, pbk, 400 pages

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie

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