Kate Atkinson, just in case there was ever any shadow of a doubt, is the real deal. I want her to write for ever and ever and ever. Was entranced during the wee small hours recently watching her on interview links from her Facebook account (“monitored and maintained” one should add, not by Ms Atkinson herself, but by “Kate’s UK and US publishers”) and she’s right at the top of that list of women authors I’d long to eavesdrop in on if ever there should be a Desert Island Discs style dinner.
“A God in Ruins” is one of the four fiction works nominated for the 2015 Costa Book Awards and I’m pretty darn certain she’ll run away with the Category Winner announced early in January and maybe even the overall Book of the Year Winner towards the end of the month. It’s not so kind of me to dismiss the other books without having even read them – and I will, I will, and am just as sure there will be some great reading there too – but I really hope this books wins everything it can this year.
STOP PRESS: it is in fact the evening of the 4th January – general blaring of trumpets and doing a war dance round the living room (to cat and daughter’s general consternation) : came home from spending a very happy hour over coffee with a fellow book-lover to realise that the Costa Book Award winners were to be announced on Radio 4’s “Front Row” just now – and lo and behold the fabulous “A God in Ruins” has not only won the Novel Award Winner prize, yippidooda, but Kate Atkinson herself was in the studio to talk about the book during the programme. It was just like having her sat on the sofa! Cup is overflowing, and other such hyperbole…
Back to the business in hand… The author’s début novel “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”, which knocked my socks off all that time ago and is due for a re-read, won this prize two decades ago, and this latest work seems to be on everyone’s 2015 rave-about book list (Printers Row Journal for the Chicago Tribune, TIME’s Top 10 Fiction Books, The Guardian’s Readers and Writers Picks of the Year, the Saltire Literary Awards, etceteraaa, etceteraaa). There is something so disarming about listening to this author speak, too; she is not exactly self-deprecating, and clearly knows her strengths, but she is so down to earth and matter of fact about her uncanny edge in portraying her characters. I now know, though, from eavesdropping on YouTube that she finds Jason Isaacs from the “Case Histories” series still haunts her, as it were, by being rather too good-looking for the faceless Jackson Brodie she had in her mind’s eye while writing him, so that has somewhat scuppered inspiration from that direction. Hope the memory fades in due course and we may be entreated to more of the same in the not too distant…
It’s impossible really to talk about “A God in Ruins” without referring to its predecessor, “Life After Life”. By the by, this later book is deemed to be a ‘companion novel’ to “Life After Life” and while I appreciate that it is a stand-alone read, it would be a shame to forego the pleasure of reading them both – and if so, it’s definitely better I think to read them in order.
Published in 2013, it introduces main protagonist and sometime heroine Ursula, whose USP is that she is born, then dies, but is then disconcertingly reborn, only to die again, over and over again, with the upshot being that the author plays with time and writing techniques in a quite mind-blowing way. If you’ve read it, you’ve probably loved it (or possibly been frustrated if you didn’t buy into the Groundhog Day approach). It does take a while to gather your wits and stop feeling dizzy at the start of this Good Reads book of the year. You’ve also got to be ready to concentrate a bit and remember who is who and where you’re at, no easy feat either, but it is so, so worth this small labour of love. As one of the characters comments, “ History is all about ‘what ifs’ ”, and part of the idea (I think) is that the book questions what could happen if you had the chance to live your life again and again until you perhaps actually got it right. Ursula is also absolutely fascinating :
“She had taken the wrong path, opened the wrong door, and was unable to find her way back. Suddenly, horribly, she frightened herself by wailing, the wretched sound of utter despondency. The owner of the shop came rushing from behind the counter…she made her sit and have a cup of tea and a biscuit and Ursula couldn’t begin to express her gratitude for this simple kindness”.
In someone else’s hands, I am certain this book could fall foul and be hoisted with his/her own pétard, but the way she writes is so beguiling and engaging and generally charismatic that I think it would be hard to not be enchanted once the initial ‘what’s going on’ feeling has subsided. With some authors you just know that you are in good hands, and I really did feel this way while reading “Life After Life”. I also loved her comments during one of the interviews Down Under on this whole issue of writing technique – with barely a twitch after dismissing Facebook as purely a marketing necessity, she comes out with the non sequitur, “Huh, this book isn’t written for a Kindle” (so that’s us told!). But she does also explain that “Writing is about rescuing the past… ‘Life After Life’ is a way of finding a place for history – the Second World War is about to go out of living memory, and that’s an incredibly poignant point in time, because everything changes once it goes out of living history”. Fab-u-lous.
Aware that she wasn’t ‘done’ with recent history and things being lost irretrievably, she came up with the genius idea of coming at the same period of time from a very different perspective. Teddy plays a relatively small role in the earlier novel, and I felt a bit wary about returning to a world where nothing had been set in stone and where the outcome slipped around inexorably right through to the end.
How wrong I was to have even the slightest doubt! This book is the bee’s knees, the genuine article, a Top Book of the Year. In a totally different way, time is yet again played with, and her control over what you read and perceive is maintained right through to the very last page – and I would go so far as to say it’s perhaps the closest you can get to a perfect novel. Reading this book is like figuratively sinking into a comfy armchair and plunging into a world where of course you don’t know the people and yet you feel they are walking around somewhere in blessed 3D. We get to know Teddy and his entourage terribly well without of course knowing them at all. We are transported to and fro along that elusive timeline : “But that was in the future…. He would have been surprised to know that he still had another decade and more ahead of him”; “Teddy supposed his own son would have to go there too (the family-honoured school), although this boy existed in a future that Teddy couldn’t even begin to imagine. He didn’t need to, of course, for in that future he had no sons, only a daughter…”.
There are constant cultural references to King Lear, to Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’, to strokes of Vermeer and the painting in the National Gallery with the woman seated at her virginal. It’s all quite brilliant. A whole visual world is created within the framework of the difficulty of maneuvering round human relationships – his daughter Viola is a piece of work in so many ways, yet who cannot warm to her over the course of the story? Initially protective of her father (“He had passed her on the street once, when she was a teenager. She was with friends from school and she had looked right through him when she passed. A son called Hugh would never have done such a thing”), we see other facets as the plot progresses: “If she was in a Forster novel she would meet the love of her life at this point (she would also be forty years younger) and be wrenched emotionally and at the end she would have her view”. Yet this is also a woman who is capable of outrageously un-maternal behaviour: “A fractious Sunny had to be prised off the body of the woman in the Lost Children hut like a limpet from a rock. ‘The poor little pet,’ the woman said and Viola said, ‘You can keep him if you want,’ which obviously the Lost-Children-hut woman thought was a joke”. All of which highlights all the more the naturally caring side of our beloved Teddy. Atkinson refers to him wanting to be like Candide and cultivating his garden, and entitles one section of the book ‘His Little Unremembered Acts of Kindness and of Love’. There is one such example between grandfather and grandson:
“Sunny’s heart was so full he could hardly speak… ‘How about we go inside? I know I need a cup of tea and I’m sure you’d like some milk and cake, wouldn’t you, Sunny? I made your favourite – chocolate,’ Sunny thought his heart would burst and spill over with happiness”.
Our ‘God in Ruins’ is far from a sugar-sweet unflawed character, yet this commitment of his to “resolve that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all that he could do” is not only credible yet almost magical. I know I am overegging it here, but this is one of those books you put down and pat tenderly and want to instantly start all over again. It’s quite simply that good.
Rating : an unequivocal 10/10 for both.
Life After Life – 2013 Winner of Costa Book Award, Good Reads Choice Winner, Paris Review Best of the Best, Shortlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlisted for Walter Scott Prize for Fiction, Shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year.
A God in Ruins – currently nominated for various awards, will update. Winner of the Costa Novel Award Prize 2015…