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This week’s New York Times Book Review offers a Top Ten two-fer as Tom Perrotta reviews Kate Akinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins. (Although our contributors gather often for spirits at the Top Ten Country Club and share days at sea on the Top Ten Yacht (the S.S. Doorstopper), Kate and Tom have never done so together, so there is no conflict of interest.)
“You read a novel like Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins,” Tom writes, “a sprawling, unapologetically ambitious saga that tells the story of postwar Britain through the microcosm of a single family, and you remember what a big, old-school novel can do. Atkinson’s book covers almost a century, tracks four generations, and is almost inexhaustibly rich in scenes and characters and incidents. It deploys the whole realist bag of tricks, and none of it feels fake or embarrassing. In fact, it’s a masterly and frequently exhilarating performance by a novelist who seems utterly undaunted by the imposing challenges she’s set for herself.
He continues: “A God in Ruins is especially impressive because it’s a sequel of sorts — a ‘companion volume,’ in the words of the publisher — to Life After Life, Atkinson’s fascinating 2013 novel, which introduced readers to the Todds of Fox Corner, a well-to-do British family whose lives intersect in various ways with the major historical events of the first half of the 20th century. Life After Life employed an unusual story-telling strategy — important characters sometimes die and then resume their lives on a different narrative trajectory — infusing what would otherwise have been a fairly conventional historical novel with a playful sense of uncertainty and almost infinite possibility. …
“Readers enchanted with this device — and there are many — may be disappointed to learn that Atkinson shelves it in the new novel. Characters in A God in Ruins have only one life, usually a pinched and diminished one that they’re looking back on with melancholy or regret. Every now and then, Atkinson winks at the reader, reminding us of what she’s renounced.”
The God of the title is Teddy Todd, “a kindhearted, almost saintly man who improbably manages to survive more than 70 bombing runs over Nazi Germany as an R.A.F. pilot in World War II. The book is split between chapters recounting Teddy’s heroic and often harrowing wartime exploits, and those that map out his placid, mostly uneventful postwar existence as a provincial journalist and lonely widower. Along the way, we also get to know his wife, Nancy; their sour and unlovable daughter, Viola (an ex-hippie turned popular novelist, “almost as good as Jodi Picoult”); and Viola’s long-suffering children, Bertie and Sunny.”
He concludes: “Taken together, Life After Life and A God in Ruins present the starkest possible contrast. In the first book, there’s youth and a multitude of possible futures. In the second, there’s only age and decay, and a single immutable past. This applies not only to the characters, but to England itself, which is portrayed over and over as a drab and diminished place. The culprit is obvious — it’s the war itself, “the great fall from grace. And yet A God in Ruins is by no means an antiwar novel. If anything, it’s a love letter to the men and boys who fought on the British side, infused with an attitude closer to The Greatest Generation than to Catch-22.”
Kate Atkinson’s Top Ten List
1. Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817).
2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865).
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813).
4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
5. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881).
6. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969).
7. Pricksongs & Descants by Robert Coover (1969).
8. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961).
9. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884).
10. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906).
Tom Perrotta’s Top Ten List
1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615).
2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
3. Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1834).
4. Howards End by E. M. Forster (1921).
5. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915).
6. My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918).
7. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900).
8. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).
9. Rabbit Angstrom — Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) — by John Updike.
10. The stories of Raymond Carver (1938–88).