Review of Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God in Ruins’

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Kate Atkinson’s latest novel is a masterful social history of England from between the wars to the present day with a distinctly enriching feminist slant.  The title invites speculation.  One interpretation is that the central character, decorated war hero and heart and soul of the story, Teddy, is the ‘god’ in ruins, but I feel this rather misses the broad sweep of Atkinson’s work.  For example, there are several ‘end of faith’ moments, the most overt being when Teddy’s sister Ursula, moved by a Beethoven recital during World War II, asks him: ‘There’s a spark of the divine in the world – not God, we’re done with God, but something.  Is it love?’.  Perhaps the novel’s ending holds the key to Atkinson’s chosen title.  In 2012, Teddy’s previously troubled grandson is a Buddhist yoga teacher in Bali.  He tells his students about the Hindu belief that all men were once gods, but had their divinity taken away and hidden inside them, ever after searching elsewhere for the divine.  Whilst Teddy may be a particular man/warrior/hero/god, perpetually negotiating the aftermath of destruction, loss, disappointment, and bereavement, it pays to have one eye on the universal whilst reading A God in Ruins.

Kate Atkinson & Canadian Cover

Kate Atkinson & Canadian Cover

Atkinson boldly flits about in time – from 1925 when 11 year-old Teddy’s affluent, upper-middle class childhood is his Utopia, to the 1980s when his failed hippy daughter’s marriage to a drug addict is doomed, to the devastation of the 1940s war years, and the 1990s when the aged Teddy is gradually losing his independence.  The early sections are almost pastoral, very English, overly civilised (Teddy’s father Hugh never speaks of his First World War experiences), with shades of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen.  Woolf because of the social mores – Teddy’s mother Sylvie, a Mrs Dalloway type, is too cowardly to keep an assignation with an admirer, thus avoiding adultery; and Bowen because, as in The Last September, it is clear the family’s halcyon days are numbered.  The loose treatment of time privileges the reader with pre-knowledge of the plot.  We are told for example, that Teddy will have grandchildren called Sun and Moon, thus satisfying any doubts about him surviving the war.  In addition, Atkinson head hops, writing from different character points of view as and when the narrative demands.  This is a highly effective way of connecting the family members on their different trajectories, revealing how their lives intersect, touch only briefly at times, but always have an effect on the others.  The multiple viewpoints also allow the repetition of an incident from different perspectives, exploring variations, challenging concepts of memory, memoir, history, and fiction.  As in her debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Atkinson also makes clever use of small objects passed from character to character in A God in Ruins.  Having said that, the earlier novel now reads like an apprentice piece compared to this, a masterpiece spanning four generations and the best part of a century.

Perhaps the most affecting aspects of A God in Ruins are Teddy’s war experiences and his settling for less in a marriage based on convenience and comfort, as opposed to passion.  Teddy is representative of a generation – the war hero, underappreciated by his own daughter, emotionally detached from that daughter because in the 1950s, child-rearing was women’s business and men maintained a stiff upper lip.  But Atkinson is too intelligent a writer to present banal dichotomies, and in simple exchanges within the family her skill as a social commentator shines.  Teddy’s teenage grandson Sunny longs to know more about his grandfather’s war, but is too awkward, feels too ignorant to ask the right questions.  When Teddy and Sunny visit a Second World War cemetery, Teddy misinterprets Sunny wandering off as lack of interest, but in fact, Sunny turns away in order to hide the tears.  Likewise, Teddy’s closest relationship is with his granddaughter, Bertie aka Moon, whose common sense and grounded approach to life means she understands her grandfather better than anyone else.  I read her as a throwback to the independent, actively serving (and sometimes dying) women Teddy encounters during World War II, but also as a chip off the old block of Ursula, Teddy’s empathetic sister, who was the main character in Atkinson’s Life After Life. 

From a feminist point of view, it is interesting to note how Atkinson depicts women’s changing roles.  In World War I, Aunt Izzie was the twice bereaved fiancée, driving an ambulance, holding the hands of fatally wounded soldiers who would inevitably call out for their mothers.  In the next war, Teddy’s sister Ursula holds an important position in the War Ministry, his wife-to-be, Nancy, is a code breaker at Bletchley, and Nancy’s sister Gertie delivers planes to airfields all over Europe.  Ted remarks that war has made women bolder and more predatory, and yet, seventy years later, the 37 year-old Bertie, an unfulfilled literature graduate in advertising, yearns for an old-fashioned gentleman as a suitor.

Atkinson’s characters are engaging; her knitting together of what goes before and after the war, as well as the graphic depiction of its horrors, is so compelling and skillfully executed that it’s hard to pick fault with A God in Ruins.  However, I found her familiar trope of concealing a key plot detail (a secret with psychological impact) and later going for the shock reveal, questionable in this book because she does it twice.  The first was believable, the second a little much to swallow.  Likewise, a few of the 2012 scenes were not as convincingly handled as others, due perhaps to the depiction of Teddy’s daughter, the friendless, cynical, Viola, former child deserter turned best-selling novelist.  I sensed author intrusion when Viola criticises a raucous hen party in York, and bemoans the popularity of cupcakes.  On the other hand, Atkinson may well be leading her reader by the nose, inviting connections between Viola and herself and/or other, authors (Viola Romaine writes commercial romances).  Is this how Atkinson flags that this is, after all, fiction?

A God in Ruins is a gem of a novel.  The World War II action scenes involving Teddy as a fighter pilot, responsible for his team, and instrumental in the ‘boiling and baking’ of civilians in Germany, are as powerful as fiction gets.  Similarly, Atkinson’s deftness as she chips away at the old orders: the English class system, patriarchy, norms of masculinity and femininity, war as a political solution, the bonds and duties of family, and trust in God, is impressive and moving.  Equally memorable are Teddy’s responses and reflections on the deaths of men and women in war, those who never had an ‘afterwards’, and his method of coping later, trying ‘always to be kind’, despite a dysfunctional relationship with his daughter and decades as a widower.

A God in Ruins puts modern mankind under the telescope, but it also interrogates the nature of the storytelling process and the human instinct to consider the ‘what ifs’ in life.  It begins in 1925 with Aunt Izzie grilling 11 year-old Teddy, he being the inspiration for her popular children’s book series about a boy called Augustus.  Teddy never recognises himself in the fictional character, despite Aunt Izzie’s extensive research, and the novel concludes back in the pre-war years with Ursula telling Teddy, ‘He’s nothing like you, you know.’  In this way, and another which would be a spoiler if mentioned, Atkinson acknowledges that her novel, like all fiction, can never be more than a shadow of reality.  A God in Ruins is a magnificent addition to the canon of contemporary writing about World War II.  It will be interesting to see which literary awards it will garner for Kate Atkinson in the months ahead.

(A God in Ruins is published by Doubleday in the UK and Canada, and Little, Brown and Company in the USA)

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