A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Those who read and liked Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life are bound to like its companion piece, A God in Ruins. If you have not read the former you will be introduced to memorable characters and a beautiful felicity of writing and storytelling, and you will be scrambling to read the first as soon as possible.Life after Life followed the life of Ursula Todd as she lived and died and lived and died again through the events of the twentieth century. A God in Ruins follows the life of Teddy, her younger brother and most beloved of all the Todd children, through the same period and more. An aspiring poet, RAF (Royal Air Force) bomber pilot, husband, and father, we learn how World War II affected him and informed the remainder of his long life. How does one continue to live when death seemed inevitable? How does one transition from war to peace and how do others perceive you in that process? A life that held so much promise comes down to recognition that “It would all die with him is the realization of the old. The people, the places, the times, the interactions—all gone with death.”
Atkinson paints a fully robust picture of Teddy from childhood to a retirement home some 90 years later. She is particularly adept at imbuing a sense of reality across the time spanned by the novel. Each time period comes alive in her descriptions and use of the appropriate word in the right place. Atkinson’s writing is splendid. Her use of familiar quotes, partial quotes, and near-quotes, for example, to illuminate a character or situation is effective and adds layers of meaning in just a few words. It is a sprawling saga with a host of characters. It reflects life in all its ups and downs.
Through the lives of the Todds, and specifically Teddy, Atkinson scrutinizes life in post-war Britain. The war was the fulcrum on which Britain teetered. Broadly speaking, it was still a colonial power until the war. During and afterwards was a long period of deprivation and austerity, and Britain was never the same. The Todd family was similarly affected as Atkinson makes so vividly clear. “The war had been a great chasm…” and there was no going back for Teddy or anyone else. The RAF no longer had need of pilots so he was remaindered but still haunted by the war. “Part of him never adjusted to having a future.”
Do not expect a narrative that flows with a lockstep beginning to the end. Atkinson conflates various decades onto a page, sometimes into a single paragraph. This literary device enables the narrator to remember and tell e vents in a natural manner: a bit of recalled memory leads one off on a tangent or two and finally back to the intended story. And, the story is magnificent.
The title is lifted from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Teddy is not innocent; he has indiscriminately killed citizens with his bombs from on high. On the other hand, he also destroyed factories used to make armaments that would have prolonged the war. The argument of good versus evil may be traced back through history to nearly every war in which the innocent suffer along with the guilty. This dichotomy is an integral part of Teddy’s life.
In a concluding Author’s Note, Atkinson speaks to the relationship between Life after Life and A God in Ruins and how they explore two different aspects of World War II. The former concentrates on life during the Blitz while A God in Ruins focuses on the campaign to bomb Germany into oblivion. She notes that the stories about the action aboard the Halifax bombers are based on first person accounts. She also includes a bibliography of sources that helped her in the creation of this truly marvelous novel.
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