A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson


“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius

I’ve often thought that I have the attention span of a goldfish but usually, when it comes to books, I stay focused on just the one book. I’ve never been that reader with a stack of books at the side of the bed, dipping in and out of several at a time. I would get confused and usually I am too intrigued by one story to drift off to something else. Unless it’s a poor book, where I then cease to read altogether (and you’ve heard me on that topic before [link to post about not reading anything]). So I found myself in the unusual situation a few months back (all the way back in June, in fact), having just started reading A God In Ruins, where a colleague recommended a good book on something topical at work (the book was Black Swan, about the events which are ruled out as unlikely to happen – if they are considered at all – but which nonetheless happen).

When it turned up from Amazon I immediately started reading that book. It was a bit heavy going so I dipped back into AGIR, but I didn’t have momentum. Still thinking I was interested in the intellectual treatise on the occurrence of unexpected events, I tried to persevere on the train but stumbled and stalled without ever getting to the underbelly of those black swans. 

I kept on packing AGIR in my backpack each day but a newspaper, a freebie magazine or my regular subscription of Psychologies magazine would by turns hold more appeal than the “companion novel” (not a sequel) to Life After Life. I took it everywhere because I was always “reading it” even though the bookmark would lie in the fold of the same page day after day, week after week. I hadn’t stopped, progress was just slow. 

Then along came a book which has changed Life As I Know It (a whole other post on that will surely have to follow this – reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before was my damascene moment) and I read that book with a single-mindedness I’ve rarely before experienced, and a pen in my hand. There was a window of time after BTB when I picked up AGIR and attacked it with my usual fervour – warm sunshine, a comfortable sun lounger and a hotel pool usually creates the right atmosphere for ardent bookworming – and I got myself to halfway. But on my return home, the arrival of another book ordered from Amazon while I was in the thrall of BTB demoted AGIR to the bottom of the bedside pile once more as I soaked up knowledge on the role of carbohydrates in the modern diet (Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat). 

Not wanting to let another month tick by without getting to the end of AGIR, I made it my sole task to do on my train journeys this week. An hour each way affords an ample reading window, excluding the odd distractions of other passengers and the conductor checking tickets. One morning, after reading a particularly moving account of living with (or rather dying from) a brain tumour, I arrived at the office in a somber mood. The metaphor of bees buzzing in the head making honey that was seeping further into the brain was an image that I couldn’t shake. Was that what my aunt had felt when it took hold in her head? Would you actually notice the point at which you cease to be yourself, more bees and honey than you?

AGIR is the story of a man, Teddy Todd, a son, brother, WW2 bomber pilot, lover, husband, father, grandfather, and his wife, his child and grandchildren. A life lived through peace, war and peace again. Of submerging who you are and letting it (or failing to stop it) creep to the surface. Of being washed along in the tide of war, and life, keeping your head above the water (mostly). Of the impact each of us has on the world and those in it. 

It was never the case that I didn’t enjoy the book and certainly having now finished it I feel the richer for it. But it was never a galloping romp or a high suspense thriller. It was about the extraordinary in the ordinary. Sometimes in life, progress is slow. But don’t ever stop.