A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson


I have been looking forward to reading this because I found Kate Atkinson's last book Life After Life so admirable. I was not disappointed.

Life After Life tells the story of the Todd family, particularly Ursula, born in 1910, with a focus on her life in London during World War II. The book was notable for the Groundhog Day method of storytelling; Ursula's life unfolds in many different ways depending on events beyond her control. A God in Ruins tells the story of Teddy, Ursula's younger brother, especially his time as a pilot during the war. Although the narrative is a single track rather than a variety of plot lines, there are references to the storytelling method of Life After Life. For example, during the war when Teddy and Ursula are talking before a concert, he wishes he could go back in time and shoot Hitler, or kill him at birth. In one of her lives Ursula shoots Hitler and in another, she dies at birth.

Teddy is one of the most appealing characters I've encountered; he was endlessly patient and kind, intelligent, inclined to live the simple life, attentive to the joys to be found in the natural world. His daughter was almost his opposite. Viola was self-absorbed, horrible to her children, never stopped being angry at the early loss of her mother, and a greedy adult. Her son Sunny was difficult but Teddy's support helped him become a whole person as an adult, though he had to go to India to achieve that. Viola's daughter Bertie was always a calm, self-contained child who grew into a loving granddaughter to Teddy. Her comments to and about her mother were brutally honest but not hostile.

The narrative hops from one era to another. Chapter titles are dates and topics, 1939:  Teddy's War, then 1993:  We That Are Left, then 1951:  The Invisible Worm, and 1942-43:  Teddy's War. There is much foretelling. We learn early in the book that Bertie met her husband on Westminster Bridge the week of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, but of course that occurred in 2012. An event might be retold from another character's perspective. Teddy commented to his wife Nancy that she reminded him of the Vermeer painting of a Woman Interrupted at the Piano. In a later chapter that focuses on Nancy, the conversation is different: she remembers the correct title of the painting (A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal). 

In this passage Nancy and Teddy are having a picnic with Teddy's mother Sylvie:

"You're going backwards," Sylvie said. "Soon you'll be living in a cave and bathing in the stream."

"Would that be so bad?" Nancy said, peeling an egg. "We could live like gypsies. I could grub around in hedgerows for berries and sell pegs and lucky charms from door to door and Teddy could catch fish and shoot rabbits and hares."

"Teddy won't shoot anything." Sylvie said decisively. "He doesn't kill."

"He would if he had to," Nancy said. "Can you pass the salt, please?"

He has killed, Teddy thought. Many people. Innocent people. He had personally helped to ruin poor Europe. "I am here, you know," he said, "sitting next to you."

Which brings me to the very clear message of this book. In the Author's Note she says she wanted to write about World War II in these two books; the Blitz in the first, and the air war in this one. There are detailed descriptions of the bombing operations with Teddy as pilot and we mourn the loss of beloved crew members and know Teddy as a thoroughly moral man. A quote from the Author's Note leaves no doubt about the reality of war:

War is Man's greatest fall from grace, of course, especially perhaps when we feel a moral imperative to fight it and find ourselves twisted into ethical knots. We can never doubt (ever) the courage of those men in the Halifax's and Stirlings and Lancasters but the bombing war was undoubtedly a brutish affair, a crude method employing a blunt weapon…."

She later notes that the air campaign began with the hope of avoiding the attrition of the First World War trenches, but became just that. 

Sylvie is less charming in this book, but does have several pithy quotes. Here's an important one: " 'Sacrifice,' " he [Teddy] remembered Sylvie saying, "is a word that makes people feel noble about slaughter."

The author ends with a truly surprising twist that underscores her message at a cost I was surprised a novelist was willing to pay. 

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins, Little, Brown and Company, 2015, 480 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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