A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

by Robert A. Parker

This is not a novel about resurrections, as was its predecessor, Life After Life. But it is about that novel’s characters, the Todd family. It is also about World War II England, post-war England, and about one branch of the Todd family over three generations. And, oh yes, this sequel is a marvelous novel.

This 2015 work is about Teddy, the brother of Ursula, the heroine of Life after Life. There is little here about Ursula. It is also about Teddy’s wife Nancy and their daughter Viola. And about Viola’s children, Bertie and Sonny. It is thus about three generations, and extends into the 21st century.

The purpose appears to be to draw a picture through this family of life in England in the 20th century. Not a historic portrait, but a personal one. A portrait of travail (Teddy in the air force), of a self-centered life (Viola), of an unsettled youth (Sonny), of a harrowing death (Nancy), and of old age (Teddy again). On second thought, it is more a portrait of life itself, through this family’s life.

And yet it is more. It is also a portrait of mankind’s nature, his violent nature, exemplified mainly by the bombing of Germany in World War II. In fact, the author says that the inspiration for this novel was an urge to write of that bombing, just as the London Blitz inspired her writing of Life after Life. But if that was her inspiration, she has written here about much more. Indeed, she also writes that this book is about the Fall (of Man). And it is. Such as being about the treatment that many family members endured.

These family events range from mercy killing to child abuse to emotional indifference, and then to cruel foster parents and cruel nursing homes. And one marvels at how well the author gets inside the separate family members, who are either involved in those events or are victims of those circumstances. In Teddy, in Viola, in Nancy, in Sonny, etc. And these characters remain consistent, even if the events are unconnected, like distracted memories. At certain points, Atkinson even advises us of events decades into the future, rounding out a character’s life when least expected.

She has thus written a portrait of life that includes death, but a life that also encompasses tragedy, suffering, and acceptance, as well as dreams of happiness and fulfillment. This scope is underscored as the author moves back and forth in time, taking the emphasis away from the narrative flow of family history and focusing on the separate events and the significance behind those events. More on the meaning of what happens to this family of man than on what the family members achieve themselves.

Deserving particular mention are the scenes of Teddy piloting his Halifax bomber in various runs over Germany, not knowing each time whether he is going to survive, but believing in what he is doing, even if it means this quiet, reflective boy is raining tons of explosives onto innocent women and children. And all this, with anti-aircraft shells bursting around him, with German fighters buzzing at him like gnats, and with neighboring bombers, carrying flyers whom he knows, suddenly bursting into flame and crashing below. It is a marvelous feat of research and imagination—even if the bombing is not condemned, as in an anti-war novel.

And then comes the ending, when the author turns things upside down. The reality of the novel becomes fiction and the author’s fiction becomes our reality. That is, the reader is asked to accept that Atkinson has made everything up—just as Aunt Izzie early on turned Teddy’s real life into that of a fictional character named Augustus. The author writes: “This sounds like novelist’s trickery, as it indeed perhaps is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”

Oh, yes, I think there is. It did not with Life After Life, where the trickery, the resurrections, were at the heart of the novel. But it is wrong here, when it comes only at the end—and as a surprise. No. It is too arbitrary. We are asked to accept that what has happened in such detail has not happened. I was going along with the ending, with Teddy dying in his nursing home, and imagining that he has actually died in the war. For it makes death come alive to him. And to us. It even makes psychological sense for a novel that is about death—as well as about life. And, indeed, exemplifies the Fall of Man.

And I also admired the figurative collapse of a building at the end, as buildings did fall, both in the Blitz and in Germany as a result of the Allied bombing. And I accepted this as a metaphor for the ending of a life, Teddy’s life. There is even the paragraph that begins: “Moment’s left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment.” It is a beautiful description.

And then this is taken away from me? In order to mirror Life After Life, when a death is not a death. That now a life is not a life? Atkinson calls it “a great conceit,” says it is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.” I think not. I do not accept that she has collapsed the walls of her novel to reveal it is fiction rather than real. Fiction is real, must be real, internally, for the reader to accept it.

Which is not to say I do not recommend this novel. I do. Highly. For its portrait of a family, of the uncertainty in war, and of postwar England. I just do not accept the author’s twist at the end. An attempt to merge its theme, perhaps its meaning, with the novel that precedes it. The two novels don’t need it. They are a pair anyway, with their portrait of a family, the portrait of separate aspects of a war, and the presence of death.

The title of this novel is taken from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins.” The god in this case is Teddy. “When men are innocent,” Emerson continues, “life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Teddy’s life was defined by his bombing career. “The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do.” Also: “Part of him never adjusted to having a future.” Thus, his long life is passive. He fathers a child, oversees grandchildren, writes about nature, but does little else, and then dies quietly. He is truly “in ruins.” Also, an innocent. So…is this an anti-war novel, after all? (December, 2016)

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