Kate Atkinson’s latest, A god in ruins, takes off where her last novel, Life after life, ends. It is not really a sequel though, more a companion piece. Where Life after life was about Ursula Todd, A god in ruins centres on her younger brother Teddy. In most versions of Ursula’s story Teddy dies young, serving as a bomber pilot in the Second World War. Atkinson didn’t devote a lot of attention to Teddy in Life after life, but must have felt sorry for throwing away a perfectly interesting character. And so, two years later she returns with a novel that explores Teddy’s life had he lived to survive the war and start his own family.

If the war was the focal point in Life after life – all of Ursula’s life seemed to move towards that climax – in A god in ruins it is the basis upon which the rest of the book is built. Teddy’s experience as a pilot flying on dangerous bombing missions over Germany marks the rest of his life. Everything that comes after must be dull in comparison. Atkinson not only manages to portray the thrill and excitement of flying, but also delivers a powerful punch when she describes the horrific side of the war in the skies. Aircraft exploding in mid-air or falling from the sky like burning comets, friends and comrades suddenly ripped from your team, the guilt of surviving when so few do. Not to mention the slow realisation after the war, when the devastating effects of those air raids start to become apparent to the ones who threw the bombs.

As the rest of Teddy’s life can never live up to the excitement of his war, nor can the rest of the book, unfortunately. His long-awaited daughter Viola becomes an important character. A spectacularly unsuccessful mother and a cranky middle-aged woman later on, Viola is quite interesting to follow. On her own she can’t compensate for Teddy’s dullness as an older man though. Too good to be true, caring for his wife and grandchildren when he has to, bickering with Viola the rest of the time. I didn’t see the point in telling us all this about Teddy.
Atkinson made me laugh quite a few times and I did enjoy reading about Viola as a wicked character, but while reading through most of A god in ruins I was hoping for the spark that I had found throughout Life after life. It may be that the first decades of last century are just more interesting to read about than what came after. But no, rubbish. A god in ruins simply doesn’t reach the same level as Life after life and shall be remembered as an entertaining summer read.  

21 June 2015

Doubleday, 2015
395 pages

Nederlandse editie: Gevallen god, Atlas Contact, 2015. Vertaald door Inge Kok.


Best wishes for 2015 everyone!
In the past year I was happy to read some wonderful, inspiring, surprising, playful, entertaining, fascinating and otherwise exciting books. Let's have a look at them.

In 2014 I continued my discoveries of the year before by reading new books by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Valeria Luiselli. I followed Leigh Fermor's journey on foot through Europe with the second book of his travels and continued my fascination with Luiselli through her novel De gewichtlozen.
Frank Westerman has become a steady name on my reading lists these last years. Stikvallei is already the 4th book I've read by him and he hasn't disappointed me so far.
Further, I finally found the mojo to pick up Truman Capote's In cold blood. It took my quite a few years to do so, but I'm glad I did. A great classic and it set me on track to discover another classic, To kill a mockingbird. That one I enjoyed even more.
New discoveries in 2014 were Anna Seghers, Kate Atkinson, Sten Nadolny and Olivia Manning. Anna Seghers made such an impression with Het zevende kruis that I'm now reading her second masterpiece, Transit. More on that one soon.
Kate Atkinson really was a delight. Such a catchy good read and deep at the same time, perfect!
Sten Nadolny's De ontdekking van het langzame leven was a gift we all received from our boss. A delightful historical novel - written in the 1980's and recently translated into Dutch - about a man who is slower than most, but manages to get quite far in life. He becomes a successful captain in the navy and even leads expeditions to discover a way through the northern ice sea. Inspiring stuff.
My last big reading project of the year was The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. More than a thousand pages of highly detailed descriptions of Manning's stay in Romania and Greece during the Second World War. I admit to cursing this book on a number of times, but ultimately I loved to read it all. Perhaps I'll try the follow up The Levant Trilogy this year.

These are all ten of my favourites in 2014 - the order I've read them in:

Anna Seghers Het zevende kruis
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Between the woods and the water
Truman Capote In cold blood
Valeria Luiselli De gewichtlozen
Frank Westerman
Kate Atkinson
Life after life
Sten Nadolny
De ontdekking van het langzame leven
Harper Lee
To kill a mockingbird
Olivia Manning
The Balkan Trilogy

In 2014 I published 33 reviews on Jacob de Zoet. Seven books read this year have remained unreviewed so far. I hope to catch up on some of them soon. At the very least Jaap Scholten's latest book Horizon City deserves a review. I quite liked it.

What else?
I started to read in German! I'm quite proud of this I have to say. I could already keep up a steady conversation in German, but I'd never read more than a few pages in a book. It feels very nice to discover a language in this way, just like I used to try my hand at English books for the first time many years ago.
I've read two German books in 2014 and I'm currently half way through a third one (Tschick). Another, with the delightful title Die Entdeckung der Currywurst, I picked up in Berlin last summer
. I hope to read that one sometime soon.

I had three interviews with authors in 2014, a new feature on Jacob de Zoet. My aim was to do a small Paris Review type of interview, to see who influences them, what books they enjoy reading and how they write. I plan to do more author interviews, so if you have any names to suggest or connections to make please let me know! Ideally they´re young, relatively unknown and nice to talk to...

I wish all of you a great reading year in 2015, with lots of books and hopefully some good ones too! As always do let me know if you have anything special to recommend me. Something old I've never heard of, a young author you're enthusiastic about or your all time favourite book which you couldn't find on this website. I look forward to reading them!

6 January 2015


Ian McEwan’s Atonement ends with an unlikely scene: Cecilia and Robbie live together in a small London apartment. They have both survived the war and have found each other once more. A happy-ever-after you know cannot be true after what you’ve read previously. But it is possible, if only...

In Life after life Kate Atkinson constructs a whole book around this question, what if? What if we were sometimes given a second chance? Would we do things differently or make the same mistakes all over again? This is an interesting philosophical question, but difficult to base an entire novel on. Kate Atkinson has taken up this challenge nonetheless and succeeded admirably. Life after life is a smart and highly entertaining book. How did she do that?

To start with, Atkinson seems to have the careless, come-what-may attitude needed to even start such a novel. Her character Ursula can die and come back to life, simple as that. She can’t just step back on stage and rejoin the previous scene though, she needs to start all over again as a baby. The thing is, she doesn’t know this herself! She grows up once again, with only a vague, ghost-like sense of her previous, parallel life. Sometimes when Ursula comes into a dangerous situation she gets a premonition, a strong intuitive feeling that danger lies ahead and she should take an alternative road. She can’t explain these premonitions, but she learns to listen to them. If she can positively affect her own future, perhaps she can do so for others as well?

The story is, inevitably I suppose, not told in chronological order. We follow Ursula from her birth in 1910 until the end of the Second World War, but the years in between get a little tossed around. Her childhood on the English countryside is the base, the place to which we always return. The things that happen in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s are less certain and depend on Ursula’s choices. Sometimes she rescues people from bombed houses during the London Blitz, sometimes she is among the unexpecting residents being bombed themselves. She may get married at a young age, but she may also choose the career of a smart, unmarried civil servant.

Different choices, different lives. I really like the playful way in which Atkinson shows our destinies are not fixed. One tiny difference can alter the course of your entire life. What people you become friends with, who you fall in love with, where you will live, work or even fight; everything is possible. Even though we will all only lead our one life, those choices are there. There are thousands of parallel lives running around you, all potentially you, but only one will actually be you. Of course, this is not a groundbreaking insight, but reading Life after life made me realize it and that’s a marvellous thing.

Does this all sound like an overly complex, weirdly fantastical book? It is definitely not. My explanation of Life after life may be; this is a difficult book to write about, but not to read. Atkinson is a prime example of brisk British writing: crisp, snappy sentences, witty asides and a desire to, above all, entertain. No fuss, just a good book. Don’t we all love that?

Incidentally, I came across Life after life more or less by accident. Started reading and didn’t want to stop. This version of me will certainly try and look out for more Kate Atkinsons in the future.

15 September 2014

Doubleday, 2013
475 pages

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