A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2015, 398 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 A God in Ruins cover

It’s almost impossible for me to discuss this book without the possibility of spoilers. For nigh on 400 pages Atkinson relates the life and times of Teddy Todd, RAF bomber pilot and brother of the Ursula whose many lives were told in Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life, yet within a few pages of the end the author pulls the rug from under her preceding story in spectacular fashion. Yes, familiarity with the previous book bolsters the logic of what she does but that conceit was firmly established before the novel was fully under way. Here there is foreshadowing in Teddy’s nightmares about the war (“in nightmares we wake ourselves before the awful end, before the fall,”) the epitaph from Keats that Teddy reflects on, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and his thoughts in the care home where he is living out his days, “That’s what he’d always done, of course, what everyone did, if you were lucky,” but really this skirts close to the sort of thing that teachers warn against very early in anybody’s attempts at story-telling as being essentially unfair on the reader. Of course, alternative endings such as Atkinson gives us are not new to fiction (and Life After Life in a sense was a whole book of them) but they usually carry on from the events leading to them and do not vitiate what has gone before quite as completely as the one here.

That her tale survives this is, then, something of a wonder, the engagement she engenders not wholly undermined. I know all fiction is a combination of smoke and mirrors, but it isn’t usually so explicitly acknowledged within a text. It helps that A God in Ruins (in retrospect a very apt title) appears formidably researched. The wartime scenes are stunningly effective. The book stands as a eulogy to the 55,573 dead of Bomber Command, a lament for their never to be born children and grandchildren, a threnody to all of its aircrews – including the survivors “part of him never adjusted to having a future”.

I had early reservations, too, about some of the techniques employed in the narrative. The timeline jumps about – not only from chapter to chapter but within a section, sometimes within a paragraph. Some events are referred to or described more than once (and not always from a different viewpoint) and I thought I’ve been told this already. In the context of the novel’s last few pages though these became more explicable.

Despite the chapters on Teddy’s later life and those focusing on his children it is the war that increasingly comes to dominate the narrative. “‘Sacrifice,’ Sylvie said, ‘is a word that makes people feel noble about slaughter.’” Teddy comes to the conclusion, “By the end of the war there was nothing about men and women that surprised him. Nothing about anything really. The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” Elsewhere, “Britain in the gloomy aftermath of war felt more like a defeated country than a victorious one.”

A hint to the mindset of an author of fiction is perhaps pointed to in the passages, “A whole life could be contained in a dinner service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away,)” and, “People always took war novels seriously.”

In what I believe I recall as an exchange which also occurred in Life After Life (deliberately ironical given that book’s premise) we have, “Nancy sighed. ‘Sometimes I wonder,’ she said, ‘about reincarnation.’ ‘No,’ Ursula said, ‘I believe we have just one life, and I believe that Teddy lived his perfectly.’”

A God in Ruins may not be lived perfectly but is, overall, an impressive achievement; better than Life After Life. One that, principally due to the war scenes (see: I did take them seriously – though of course WW2 is a period in which I have long had an interest,) will live with me for a long while.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval (is mediæval – or even mediaeval – now a lost cause?)

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  1. Denis Cullinan

    Quote: “Pedant’s corner:- medieval (is mediæval – or even mediaeval – now a lost cause?)”

    Ho ho! In this country philological sanity is a cause that was lost a generation or so ago. A TV “announcer,” reading her teleprompter, gave us “antidote” for “anecdote,” and more than once I’ve heard “Asian” pronounced AH-zee-uhn. You probably know that “to beg the question” now means “to evoke some kind of challenging reply.”
    As regards the “ae” ligature–well, you can’t hear my hollow laughter from across the foam.

    ——Denis Cullinan

  2. jackdeighton

    It annoys me that the ae and oe spellings are falling out of favour even on this side of the pond. Medieval in particular is everywhere now.
    We get malapropisms of the anecdote/antidote type on our TV news as well. Beg the question too, except in the sense of somehow having failed to completely explain something rather than avoided answering at all.
    What I really hate, though, is bacteria and phenomena used in the singular.

  3. Judith

    Hi Jack,
    I’m very interested in what you have to say about this novel and about Atkinson’s previous Life after Life. What you’ve written has made me interested in reading A God in Ruins, though I must confess that I can never go back to finish Life after Life, because it made me go on hands and knees to the edge of insanity.

    I’m wondering, though, if you would recommend any other novels describing the RAF experience in WWII.

    For the American equivalent, I would wholeheartedly recommend Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which I’ve no doubt you’ve read. And I’m due to read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller for the Classics Club. I remember my father, a navigator for the Army Air Corps in WWII loving that one.

    Best wishes,
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  4. jackdeighton

    Hi Judith,
    Thanks for reading the piece and taking the trouble to comment.
    I had a technical reason for liking Life after Life (see my review here) less than A God in Ruins but I can certainly see how it would drive you mad.
    I have read Slaughterhouse 5, which is brilliant, but never got round to Catch-22.
    As far as the RAF experience in WW2 goes a lot of the books focus more on the Battle of Britain rather than the bombing compaign over Germany as the first was more important to the continued existence of the UK and staying in the war. Andrew Greig’s That Summer is an excellent Battle of Britain novel (see here.) Katrina has also read and reviewed this.
    Len Deighton covered both aspects of the British WW2 air war in Fighter and Bomber but Fighter is a history book. Bomber is a novel and deals with the practicalities very well. His Goodbye Mickey Mouse is set in the US 8th airforce flying out of East Anglia in 1944.
    A L Kennedy’s Day (my review is here) is about a bomber pilot but is more like Greig’s book than Deighton’s.
    I’m sure there must be more novels dealing with the subject but those ones are what came off the top of my head.

  5. Judith

    Hi, Jack,
    Goodbye Mickey Mouse–what a great title, and I don’t know it all. Will have to look it up. I’ll look up Bomber, too, and Kennedy’s Day as well. And That Summer. I’m particularly interested in the air war history in Britain.

  6. jackdeighton

    Hi Judith,
    I hope you manage to find the books.
    It seems I misremembered A L Kennedy’s Day a bit. It’s actually about a rear-gunner – the most dangerous role in a bomber’s crew.
    Much respect to your father. The US Air Corps had a particularly perilous time over Germany as they flew during the day. We British turned to night bombing early on as the losses were too high on daylight raids.


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