I must admit that I was sent a copy of this novel a year ago, but it’s remained sitting patiently on my shelf begging to be picked up. I’ve never read Kate Atkinson before although I know how well-regarded she is so I was eager to read “A God in Ruins”. However, I was aware that it’s a kind-of sequel or companion novel to her previous book “Life After Life”. The geek in me likes to read things in order and I wanted to clear some time to get to the first before reading this second book. Taking on the challenge of reading the entire Baileys Prize longlist before the shortlist announcement has meant I don’t have this luxury. Simon of SavidgeReads and others have assured me it’s not necessary and that it even might be preferable to read them in reverse order. So I plunged in and was completely swept away by the strength of Atkinson’s writing. This is undoubtedly masterful storytelling and it is a tremendously powerful book.
The novel focuses primarily on the life of Teddy, a WWII bomber pilot. The story stretches from his early days living amongst many siblings at his family home Fox Corner to his late life as a grandfather. But the book doesn’t follow a linear line. Instead, it moves in scenes backwards and forwards in time drawing fascinating connections across decades. In early scenes details about the ultimate fate of a particular central character might be mentioned in a sentence’s subclause. This is similar to the way Virginia Woolf delivers news of Mrs Ramsay’s demise in “To the Lighthouse”. It can seem in someway shocking and cruel, but gives a powerful sense of the flow of time. Rather than spoiling the plot, it strongly adds to how you read a scene so you remain mindful of the way a life plays out even in the middle of that scene’s action. This works particularly well when reading about the various crews during scenes of wartime air fights. Knowing how some will perish or grow to an old age makes their individual characters come more vibrantly alive and the action feel very moving. It’s not easy to write good fast-paced action sequences like plane crashes because reading is so much slower than watching a film. But Atkinson handles this action admirably well!
I do love it when a novel’s title takes on added poignancy as the story goes on. Atkinson uses metaphors for how the fights between aircrafts in the war make them like gods in battle. Much later, Teddy’s grandson finds during his religious practices that each individual is like a god. Although Teddy survives to an old age (we know this from the beginning) he can’t stop the demise of his own body, the fates of those he loves or the troubles his daughter and her children encounter later on. The layering of time in this novel makes poignant statements about the meaning and long-lasting impact of war. Its remarked how “As you got older and time went on, you realized that the distinction between truth and fiction didn’t really matter because eventually everything disappeared into the soupy amnesiac mess of history. Personal or political, it made no difference.” Truth changes its meaning when it transforms into the anecdotes and stories Teddy tells his grandchildren. He frequently feels conflicted and guilty over the fact that some of the bombing was over civilian populations. Atkinson shows through this the complexity, cruelty and long-term effects of war.
Something I felt conflicted about when reading this novel was the way Atkinson handles Teddy’s daughter Viola and her first husband Dominic. In their early adulthood they are hippies, wildly rebelling against their parents’ conservative lifestyles and live on a commune in the 70s. They are relentlessly selfish, hypocritical, vile and dangerously reckless. While I have no doubt there are people like this, the way in which Atkinson constructs this presentation of a counterculture lifestyle in relation to the pastoral ideals of Teddy’s later lifestyle of subsisting in the English countryside made me uncomfortable. It felt in a way like Atkinson was saying the societal movement which rebelled against the proceeding generation who fought in the war were merely ungrateful rather than having anything useful to say. It partly seemed to me like a case where the author is using the characters of Viola and Dominic as ciphers for her feelings rather than granting them dignity as individuals. Atkinson states in an afterward that her respect for the people who fought in WWII motivated her to write this book.
Viola’s character does take on more complexity later in the novel, yet she is a target of continuous ridicule. Atkinson has more fun with her when Viola eventually becomes a writer. Viola treats her aging father with frequent disregard or only wants to suck value from him like a vampire: “She might have been able to use his memories as the basis of a novel. One that everyone would respect. People always took war novels seriously.” This is quite a playful comment about what Atkinson is doing herself. If it feels like Viola isn’t treated with much compassion, the fact she becomes a writer makes me wonder if it might be her that Atkinson paradoxically identifies with the most. Viola’s children and the soldiers who fight are treated with much more reverence. That’s not to say a character like Teddy is presented as a faultless individual. His tragic misconstruing of his wife’s actions at one point is a particularly poignant example of his limitations.
The novel skilfully presents how the fates of very young soldiers who fought in the war were so precarious. Despite heroic acts, it often seems merely accidental whether someone survived or not during the heat of battle. There are also terrifying moments of epiphany for Teddy when in the midst of battle he sees that they are very small elements of greater societal shifts: “It was then that Teddy realised that they were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.” Because the survival or demise of individuals hang upon mere chance, it’s as if Atkinson spins the roulette wheel of history in her story so that outcomes exist in a nexus of infinite possibilities. She states that “The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” But that doesn’t make this particular story that she imagines for Teddy any less meaningful.
I am really eager to go back and read “Life After Life” now. Coming to this novel late, I’ve been able to see how it’s been received. Some Atkinson fans feel it’s her best where others still believe earlier books to be better. It was surprising for me to learn that “Life After Life” is focused primarily on Ursula who is Teddy’s sister. She didn’t stand out very prominently in “A God in Ruin” so I wonder if Atkinson assumed her readers would have more knowledge about her than we do or if she was happy to let her fade more into the background. I’m guessing that reading the first novel will only motivate me more to want to come back and read this latest one.
It seems to me that when writers create companion novels that involve the same characters the fictional world they’ve formed feels more complete because they’ve already meditated upon and imagined the characters’ lives and histories so well. This was certainly the case in Rachel Joyce’s “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” which is a companion to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” and it was also the case in Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” which is a companion to “Gilead” and “Home”. I loved these later novels and I felt they were much stronger than the earlier books. I know other people who feel differently. Whatever the case, Kate Atkinson has certainly created a fully realized universe and shows she possesses inimitable powers as a storyteller. “A God in Ruins” is a heartbreaking, profound and riveting read of great complexity and skill.