Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States on August 20, 2018
I've had mixed feelings about Kate Atkinson. One the one hand, I'm dazzled by the sharpness of her wit, her pinpoint perceptions, a derring-do that inspires her to indulge in literary hijinks without losing the story's suspenseful thrust. On the other hand, I've sometimes felt put off by her sheer presence on the page, the almost ruthless delight she takes in authorial manipulation. "A God in Ruins," the second "companion" book in her saga of the Todd family, a well-to-do English clan whose fortunes and misfortunes span the 20th century and beyond, puts Atkinson's considerable strengths, as well as her shortcomings, on full display. Whereas its predecessor, the more consistently engaging "Life After Life," focused on the Cassandra-like Ursula Todd, this one's chief concern is with her admirable brother, Teddy, a flying ace during World War II, cast into passive Yorkshire obscurity for his remaining seven decades. As with Ursula's story, Atkinson is addressing the nature of a kind of heroism, which in her terms seems to come down to modesty of worldly ambition, a devotion to things like poetry and nature, dedication to the obligatory tasks at hand, and above all, unfailing kindness to others, especially to the least kind members of one's family. In godlike Teddy's case, the family member more challenging than any Nazi fighter he encountered in his many bombing raids over Hitler's Germany is an utterly loathsome daughter, Viola, the only offspring of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, which was truncated by death from brain cancer. The novel oscillates between Teddy's extended confrontations with his two demons: the wartime German enemy and the peacetime Viola. This is a tremendously promising set-up, and Atkinson, in many respects, is formidably up to making the most of it. The scenes with terrible Viola, are cruelly scathing in their depiction of filial callousness and maternal neglect. The wartime bombing missions are strobe-lit snapshots of men bonding, dying, surviving and, above all, killing in blind obedience to the call of country. But as a whole, the novel never quite takes flight. Having deeply researched what it was like to serve in the RAF, Atkinson gets bogged down in minutiae that becomes increasingly numbing every time Teddy embarks on another raid that is likely to be his last. Atkinson lays into Viola's behavior toward her father and children with such fury that you begin to feel nostalgic for Lear's daughters. Awesome as Atkinson is yet again, I felt more than ever that she would benefit from an equally strong editor - one who could tell her when enough becomes enough.