Monday, 14 November 2016

Life After Life // A God in Ruins

Before reading Life After Life and A God in Ruins I had never read any Kate Atkinson, and I can only say I'm glad to have remedied that now.  Her writing is beautiful and here we have two atmospheric, quietly moving stories.  They almost sneak up on you, especially Life - in the beginning I almost felt like not much was happening but before I knew it, I was more than 50 pages in and hooked.

Both novels feature members of the Todd family, with emphasis on one particular character in each.  In Life After Life we are introduced to Ursula Todd who is born one snowy night in 1910, and dies immediately.  In the very next page, Ursula is born again, and this time survives - for a while, at least.  The novel continues in this fashion as each time Ursula is born we follow the happenings of her life and witness how these affect the path she is on;  how in some cases the decisions she makes or things that happen to her catapult her into tragedy, and how on other occasions she is able to steer a straighter path.

Crucially, Ursula is unaware of her ability to 're-do' her life.  She often experiences a type of premonition that something awful is about to happen, which prompts her to make a different decision than she might have in a previous version of her life, but for the most part she does not do so consciously and is not actively setting out to change her own destiny.  This means the story manages to avoid being gimmicky.  Instead, it's a thoughtful look at how seemingly small events can affect a person's life, explored against the poignant backdrop of the Second World War.  The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time as you might expect, but each version of Ursula's life is helpfully scattered with details we have already encountered in previous ones, so it's easy to keep up with.

There are lots of good things to say about about Life After Life but the best thing for me was the characterisation.  The Todd family is a large one and they also have a variety of wider friends and family and with so many characters it can be easy for them to merge into one another - not here.  Each one is memorable and I had a real sense of who they were as individuals, from the solid patriarch Hugh (my favourite) to his wayward sister Izzie, and I enjoyed reading about all of them.

I couldn't say the same for A God in Ruins and even though I gave both books 4 stars on Goodreads, I would have to say that I didn't enjoy this quite as much, but only for the reason that I just didn't like some of the characters as much.  In this companion novel the focus shifts to Ursula's brother Teddy Todd and flicks backwards and forwards in time, looking at his time in the RAF during the war and his life afterwards, into old age.  In the present and recent past segments we are introduced to Teddy's family and some of the narrative is from their point of view, and they just were not characters I enjoyed reading about, particularly not Teddy's daughter Viola.  She was self-indulgent and petty and I found myself feeling annoyed with her quite a lot.  The reason behind their rocky relationship is made clear by the end, but Teddy had been one of the most endearing characters in Life After Life and I felt upset that he didn't have the family life he wanted!

For me, A God in Ruins had the more powerful message.  It's hard to say too much about it without giving the ending away, but it was very affecting and genuinely thought-provoking.  Again the Second World War is almost a character in itself, and personally this is a time period I love to read about in historical fiction.  My heart was in my mouth many a time following Teddy on his bomber raids.  These moments in contrast with the quieter, more reflective passages of Teddy's life after the war make for a very moving story and both books really have something to say about the fragility of life.

Two books that I'm very glad I read, and I will definitely be reading some more of Kate Atkinson's work in the future.

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