LitStack Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

by Sharon Browning

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins
Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company
Release Date:  May 5, 2015
ISBN 978-0-316-17653-8

According to her Author’s Note in A God in Ruins, Kate Atchinson originally wanted to write a novel with World War II as a backdrop; however, she soon realized such an effort was “too daunting a challenge.”  Instead, she decided to write two novels, each anchored by an aspect of the war that had most deeply piqued her own interest: the London Blitz and the aerial bombing campaign against Germany.  The 2013 novel Life After Life centered around Ursula Todd and (in part) the London Blitz, but also uniquely explored how a singular circumstance could drastically alter a single life.  So much more than simply an individual’s narrative, this novel related many different potential iterations of Ursula’s life, creating a branching tale that was at once full of both uncertainty and possibility.

In A God in Ruins we meet the Todd family again; this time the central character is Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother.  But while the cast of characters may be familiar, this is a very different book than Life After Life.  By the author’s own declamation, A God in Ruins is more a companion piece rather than a sequel; there are no undue fluctuations in Teddy’s linear life.  Instead, what we get is an extraordinary novel about a very “ordinary” person.  It is, quite simply, a tour de force.

Born to a well to do British family ensconced on their country manor known as Fox Corner, Teddy was brought up on traditional English values, complemented by a typically idiosyncratic but largely harmless family (including an eccentric aunt who made him the prototype for the main character in her set of books about an impish young boy which ran from 1926 to 1958).  A loving family.  He went to the same boarding school that his father went to, and his father before him, and so on.  Then to Oxford.  After school he traveled in Europe somewhat itinerantly, and played around with the idea of being a poet.  Instead, the war broke out and he became a pilot in WWII, flying over 70 missions, rising to squadron leader of a Halifax bomber and then wing commander; he marveled at being one of the few who made it through the war (even though he spent the last five years of the conflict as a German POW).  Returning to civilian life, he became a teacher and finally married his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, as everyone expected him to (including himself).  Even though he was sure he loved Nancy, he often wondered to himself if he was ever in love with her.  They had one child, a daughter, Viola, before Nancy died tragically of cancer when Viola was still quite young.

Spoilers, you say?  Not really.  The beauty in A God in Ruins is not the story itself, but how it is told.  There is glory in living a life, yes, but also in how it is remembered.

Although the events and occurrences in A God in Ruins do not change, the narrative itself is very fluid.  Chapters do not follow any kind of chronological order, jumping from 1944 to 1925 to 1980 and back to 1947, then 1939 and 1993, and so on, eventually all the way out to 2012 and back again.  Within the chapters themselves, we may hear mainly Teddy’s voice, but also the voice of his mother Sylvie or his father, Hugh, or his grandchildren Sunny and Bertie, his sister Ursula, maybe Nancy, maybe Viola.   Within these disparate, sometimes dissonant voices, we get starkly contrasting views of Teddy’s life:  as a frustratingly old fashioned single parent of an angry young girl whose mother was taken from her too soon, as a grandfather who provides an oasis of calm in an unsettling world but not long enough for wounds to heal, as a stalwart comrade in arms, or husband, father, friend, brother who chooses so often to stay silent and keep the ghosts from his past tucked close, his medals tucked away in the attic, his regrets tucked away behind the beliefs and experiences that give him peace.

It may seem that such a continuous displacement might cause the narrative to be disjointed, the drift of the tale jarring, perhaps deliberately obtuse.  But this is not the case.  Teddy’s story flows beautifully, with casual mentions, anecdotes and musings often reappearing later from a different direction, with great poignancy.  It is almost as if we are looking in at a meandering daydream; the story moves in and out like fleeting memories, one attached to another but not always by the most obvious of connections.  In Ms. Atkinson’s capable hands, the effect is mesmerizing.

And always, the story, the memories, return to the war.  Teddy’s recounting of his time in the RAF, the details of life on the base, the men (and women) with whom he interacted, the planes he piloted, the mindset of someone who knows the odds are stacked against him every time he reports for duty, who knows that his job is to kill indiscriminately so that those he loves will not be killed indiscriminately, is gripping and often intense.  Through Teddy’s memories we are eased into glimpsing the incredible sacrifices made from those who died (so many who died!) but also from those who returned.  While Teddy rarely dwells on the war once it has passed, the narrative continues to revert to the war years – they are a siren’s call, that even if they can be left behind, will never fully divest themselves from a life thus touched.

This story ends up being far more than “mere” history, more than a collection of facts and figures, more than an astute tutorial dressed up as fiction.  This story becomes personal, unguarded, even intimate, for Teddy does not shy away from his memories – all his memories – even if he does not often share them with others.  Yet, in typical traditional British fashion, Teddy downplays even the most horrific of experiences, even in his own mind, even while acknowledging them.  It’s only life, after all.

And then, just as the story is winding down, just as we are ready for the credits to roll, Ms. Atkinson gives us one last reveal that… well, you’ll find out.  As I said earlier, the beauty of A God in Ruins is not necessarily the story itself, but how it is told.  And oh, it is told so very well.

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