Review: A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life managed that rare literary miracle: a popular experimental novel. Despite featuring a disruptive narrative form (the continual death and rebirth of the female protagonist) it won Atkinson the Costa Novel Award. This success also left Atkinson with another character she wanted to grant an extra life to – golden boy Teddy Todd, brother of Life After Life’s heroine, Ursula.
While Teddy suffers various fates as a side character in Atkinson’s previous book, he takes center stage here, cheating death after death as an RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain. Atkinson describes A God in Ruins as a ‘companion piece’ to the earlier novel, and both have at their vivid hearts the events of World War II. In this case, the experiences of those who flew out to bomb Germany night after night, their bravery and their trauma:
‘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.’
The most vivid scenes are the bombing raids themselves, cinematic in drama and detail, but the novel encompasses the whole of Teddy’s life – his childhood in the home counties Eden of Fox Corner, his humdrum marriage, the parenting of wayward daughter, Viola, and her damaged children, right up to his death,. A death finally reached not in the skies where so many of his comrades met a violent end, but of old age in a Yorkshire care home. The novel jumps back and forth between these timeframes in a spry, knowing way. Time is layered not linear, and the future is seen mistily from the past, echoing Life After Life’s fascination with serendipity and branching fates.
Much is made of the contrast of Teddy’s stoicism and his daughter’s anti-establishment selfishness, as if these are generational rather than personal characteristics. Viola’s attempts at communal living and her abandonment of her children in favour of the Greenham Common protest lapse into a kind of caricature that feels at odds with the nuance granted to the earlier generation.
In novel after novel, Atkinson’s great strength is her agile prose and her prodigious imagination, a voluble ornamenting of every possible narrative angle. In one scene Viola sits on a beach wearing a vintage petticoat, and Atkinson swerves off to consider the feelings of their original wearer, ‘a shopgirl who had died of consumption’. When it works, it conjures the infinite richness and echoing histories of the world, but sometimes this skittishness is a distraction from the emotional heart of the book, where she more skillfully skewers moments of real emotion.
Atkinson steps in and out of her narrative in a way that seems to say ‘look, it’s just a story, a mousse of invention’ while simultaneously upbraiding the contemporary world for its vacuity, its egotistical entertainments (including a very funny account of hen and stag parties on the rampage in York).
In an author’s note at the end, Atkinson writes about her extensive research and her admiration for the ‘heroism and determination’ of the men of Bomber Command, noting that ‘we have not been tested the way they were.’ The implication being that we would be better people if we had. However, Teddy is hollowed out by his war and the personal tragedies that follow; his life not visibly ‘in ruins’, but carefully small, regretful and repressed, though indeed, that is ruin enough.
The Gammy Bird
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, RRP £20.00, 384 pp