“A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood.”
I adore this quote from ‘A God In Ruins’. It’s so simple but it’s a beautiful and profound elucidation of life and meaning. Atkinson makes use here of the bird and flower imagery that runs through the entire characterisation of Teddy (Edward) Beresford Todd, our protagonist in this novel. I found it particularly affecting considering the pivotal moment of the narrative it relates to but it’s also a great example of Atkinson’s skill as a writer. She brings ideas like this to bear within her characters’ lives, making them human and relatable rather than simply ‘types’.
Kate Atkinson’s writing -her wit, intelligent plot structures, and unique methods of characterisation – has been celebrated since her debut novel, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ (1995), won the Whitbread First Novel and Book of the Year award in the year of its publication. In 2013, she was awarded with the same accolade (now renamed the Costa Book Award) for ‘Life After Life’, in which we follow Ursula Beresford Todd through multiple versions of her life.
‘A God In Ruins’ is a ‘companion piece’ rather than a sequel to ‘Life After Life’ according to Atkinson. The primary focus is on Teddy’s role as a pilot in a Bomber Command unit during the strategic bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War. This aspect of Teddy’s life has a lasting affect on his attitude and experience in the aftermath of war. Certain sections of the narrative focus on characters close to Teddy and their perspective of his influence in their lives. I think it’s a really great way of disrupting the boundary between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, between a person’s understanding of themselves and how other people understand them.
Each ‘part’ or ‘chapter’ of the novel is dated, and so give insights into Teddy’s childhood, his life as a young pilot, in middle age, and in the final stages of his life. He is a son, a nephew, a friend; a husband, father and grandfather. The entire narrative is non-chronological – the parts are not ‘in order’ and within each ‘Part’, we seamlessly and continuously move from ‘present’ events, back several decades through thoughts and memories, or ‘forwards’ as the narrative presence (not a character in itself, but providing a unique tone and commentary throughout the novel) hints at future events.
The little ‘windows’ into the future are particularly good for maintaining intrigue: signposted by such phrases as ‘Teddy would have been surprised to learn that in twenty years…’, these brief time-hops make you want to read on in the hopes that all will be detailed further as the novel continues. Even if she does not expand on the events, this unusual structure gives the sense of the scope of influence that one person, Teddy, can have on the world in the form of other people. It shows that legacies take greater forms than inherited wealth and property: it is revealed in behaviours, words and actions.
This is one of the many ways in which Atkinson’s novel is a ‘page-turner’, because you’re constantly anticipating ‘where’ and ‘when’ you’ll be taken to next. I really enjoyed how Atkinson blends past, present and future times throughout the narrative, using Teddy as the central ‘thread’ connecting all the other characters together.
As the title suggests, one of the central themes is ‘Man’s Fall from Grace’. Teddy, a kind compassionate man throughout his life, has his morals and attitudes challenged repeatedly. As a pilot in the Bomber Command Unit, as a husband, father, grandfather, as a friend, and indeed simply as a human being, he is confronted with difficult choices whose consequences he is forced to live with. Even those with the best of intentions can cause pain to others. In war especially, be it face-to-face combat or dropping bombs on economic strongholds from the sky, the distinction between ‘good’and ‘bad’ is not absolute – at least not in terms of civilians and ‘foot soldiers’ (for want of a better term). In the aftermath of war, especially when Viola begins making pointed remarks about his morality, Teddy is forced to accept the fact that he was responsible for the loss of innocent life in the same way that the German air force was. In his role as husband and father, too, Teddy makes decisions that will haunt his future relationships and perspectives.
The fraught relationship between Teddy and his only child, Viola, is a highlight of mine: it is so unashamedly difficult, with neither father nor daughter able to fully communicate or appease the other. Seeing Teddy, one of five siblings and his mother’s favoured child, trying to form a meaningful relationship with his distant, prickly daughter is so interesting.There’s so much dark, almost gallows humour in their relationship:
“He imagined she wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d badgered him into his coffin.”
Such instances running through the novel energise it, and I think it makes Viola, a difficult, antagonistic presence in Teddy’s life (and in the lives of her own children) more relatable. There are certain events which shape her, influencing her attitude towards her father and to her own parenting methods, and at her core, she is incredibly lonely. There’s a sadness to her life that, while not making her wholly endearing, at least makes her more human.
Though the war effort is perhaps the most significant focus and thrust of the plot, well-researched and portrayed by Atkinson, she also explores the way in which society, and countries as a whole, change in a relatively short space of time on a grander scale. We see that through Teddy, a man who grows up between two world wars (becoming a pilot in the second), who approaches middle age in the 1950s and 1960s as Britain was attempting to recover culturally and economically; his daughter becomes involved in drugs culture, in political activism concerning the environment, gender equality and economic policy; he helps to raise his grandchildren in the 1980s and 1990s. He experiences electricity being installed in his childhood home and the rise of social media in the twenty-first century. It’s something that has been fascinating to me for a while – the vast changes that can occur over the course of a lifetime – so I really enjoyed seeing it here in ‘A God In Ruins’.
There’s a fantastic plot twist at the end of the novel. It’s a brilliant narrative sleight of hand that connects with the idea that is central to ‘Life After Life’: the impact of one person’s life and decisions on those around them, and the world as a whole. The twist really brings home the how fine the line that exists between fiction and reality can be; how ‘truth’ and ‘imagination’ are in many ways not mutually exclusive or opposite concepts.
I think the final words of the novel are great too. It wouldn’t really be considered a spoiler, but I’ll leave it to you, if you read ‘A God In Ruins’, to find out what they are. The line made me laugh more than it probably should have and I just think it’s a great way of bringing the reader ‘back’ to reality.
All in all, I would say this is a great read. It’s funny, it’s tense, it’s dramatic, and it has an emotional resonance that really grips you. Teddy is an exemplary protagonist: watching him grow from childhood until his final days as a 98 year old man, you understand his attitudes and behaviour, however frustrating he may seem at times. As a reader, you appreciate the difficult challenges and choices Atkinson confronts him with, and I felt that because I cared about him, it made me reflect on how I might act or think in similar situations. You care about each of the characters, even the antagonistic ones, because Atkinson makes them human rather than just character types. It’s fairly long, just over 500 pages, but it never felt like a slog to read. I was gripped from start to finish. It’s a great ‘companion piece’ to its predecessor, Life After Life, but Atkinson creates such a rich tapestry of characters and events in A God In Ruins that reading the first installment isn’t a necessity for following the plot of the second. I would really recommend this novel to those who like stories about war time experiences, because Atkinson has clearly done extensive research to make her portrayal of the bombing operations over Germany as accurate and sensitive as possible. In addition, though, it’s just a fantastically constructed plot dealing with love, family, morality, society, and traumas of many kinds and degrees.