Written by Ella Walker


Shelf Life

This week Ella Walker assesses A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Is it worthy of a permanent place on her shelf?

bookshelf with ladderWas it love at first sight?

Waiting for this took me back to the days of counting down the moments until the release of each new Harry Potter book, and saving up my pocket money to buy the latest instalment of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (even though, when it came to it, The Amber Spyglass was a heartbreaking letdown – £10.99 that cost me!).

There was that feverish feeling: what if it was sold out? What if someone ruined the ending before I’d managed to read it? What if Kate Atkinson had lost all sense of direction and splodged a whole load of random sentences into a Word document and her editors had just gone: “We don’t get it, she’s chatting nonsense, but sod it, Life After Life did so bloody well we’re printing it by the million anyway!”

Because you see, I loved Life After Life, Atkinson’s 2013 novel in which protagonist Ursula Todd ekes out her existence in stages, dying repeatedly, getting to unknowingly give this whole mortal coil another go, and another go, and another go (somehow without boring the reader to angry, frustrated sobs).

There was much at stake – for me (selfishly), and Atkinson (professionally) – in writing an ‘accompanying text’ (don’t mention the word ‘sequel’) to Ursula’s story, this time picking up the life of her little brother Teddy. But I’m glad she braved it.

How long did it take you to feel truly comfortable around each other?

Considering A God in Ruins came out in May last year, you might be wondering why I have only now just read it. I would say: you know how I feel about hardbacks. The wait was tricky, but I’ve gotta stand by my principles. But once we were introduced, we got on like an absolute dream.

How would you describe it behind its back?

Rambling, like poisonous ivy, climbing in all directions, beautiful at a distance, deep and dark and winding up close, and prone to ripping chunks out of everything – this book is masterful in its scope, spanning Teddy’s life, from boy scout to granddad of two, via marriage, war, fighter planes, gardening, illness and a despicable, self-obsessed daughter.

A God in Ruins would nudge you into take a long hard look at the people you’ve gone on holiday with. Can you really know any of them as well as you think you do?”

However, there is very little joy to be found in its plot, although much to be found in how it is written and structured (Atkinson is annoyingly clever at times).

Did it make you laugh out loud?

Not once. Fortify yourself with tea, tissues and chocolate hobnobs. To be honest, there are whole chunks where you won’t even be able to crack a smile – but there’s enough imagination and beauty in it for you to not feel broken by the end.

You’ve had a nightmare time. Would it provide the understanding to get you through / soak up your tears?

It will add to your collection of tears, but will also remind you that life is malleable, that you have choices and power and the strength (however deep you’ve got to dig for it) to find new ways of doing and being and feeling. It will also make you want to grow vegetables. It’ll make most things better.

a god in ruins coverWould you let it meet your other friends?

I have been positively pushy with its sister text, Life After Life – I’ve raved about it endlessly (irritatingly so at times). Did I mention I LOVED IT? But A God in Ruins didn’t latch onto me in quite the same way.

It would be difficult to read as a stand-alone, so if a friend hasn’t read Life After Life (or, controversially, disliked it – obviously these people have been demoted to acquaintances) why waste time telling them just how wonderful Teddy is? A God in Ruins is quieter, more personal, less commercially glossy than its predecessor, so only the inner, Atkinson-awed circle get an invite.

How would you describe your commitment levels – did you put the effort in?

Certainly. I sped through it, possibly at the detriment of catching all the details (and Atkinson knows how to stack up the detail).

Could you take it on holiday with you, without getting severely hacked off after three days?

Oh yes, but it would nudge you into take a long hard look at the people you’ve gone on holiday with. Can you really know any of them as well as you think you do?

If you suddenly stumbled across it after several years of lost contact, do you reckon you would:
a) Think of it fondly but accept you’d both moved on (keep but don’t read)
b) Pick up exactly where you left off (reread every few years)
c) Ditch it, obviously you were never really friends.

A solid b) partly because I sped through it so ravenously I probably skidded by whole paragraphs (pages even) in my rush to finish it, and partly because, as with Life After Life, there are so many layers and tangents of stories left spiralling in all directions, it’d take at least three readings just to identify them all, and even more sleepless nights attempting to get anywhere near tying them up.

Next month Ella will be reading The Bees by Laline Paull


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Written by Ella Walker

Ella Walker is an entertainment writer and book blogger living in Cambridge. She likes swimming in the sea and eating biscuits. Preferably at the same time.