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A God in Ruins

Clare F. Hobba

A God in Ruins

Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 384 pp

Kate Atkinson's latest novel, A God in Ruins is described as a 'companion piece' to her prize-winning and best-selling work, Life after Life which shows the many possible or parallel lives of Ursula Todd, a young woman from a middle class family who lived through both World Wars. A God in Ruins focuses on the life and death of Teddy, Ursula's beloved younger brother, who spends World War II as a bomber pilot. It continues the story of him and his descendants nearly to the present day, and is timely in that so many of those who were active in World War II are now passing on. It is an immensely readable book with warm and sympathetic characterisation, wit and humour. Scratch the well-written surface however, and the very grandest of themes are there - the purpose of life, how one values the single life of a loved one against the deaths of many strangers, how one meets one's own death. The title of the novel is taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson and prepares us for its subject matter: 'A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we wake from dreams.' The awakening into another life which happens continually to Ursula in Life after Life is not represented in A God in Ruins. The characters seem to suppose that on the other side of death, nothingness awaits, and Atkinson presents no version of events to either confirm or deny this. The possibility of reincarnation as another life-form is presented merely as a story to comfort one of Teddy's grandchildren on the death of her unreliable father. (She hopes he will come back, fittingly, as a cat.) There is certainly no support from this author for the Christian hope of Heaven (whatever form Heaven may take). However, there is a definite kindness in the way that the experience of death is described. Even characters who appear outwardly distressed (such as Ted's wife, Nancy) are given a calm inner monologue as they pass out of this world. This is an easier novel to warm to than Life after Life as the development of Teddy and his family is told in a sustained and coherent way. There are no heroes or villains and a character whom it is hard to like, the vile Viola, (Teddy's daughter) is given a toehold on the sympathies of the reader in the denouements of the final chapters. Atkinson displays her technical brilliance by not parading it. The story unfolds in a far from linear way, juxtaposing episodes from the present and from many different eras of the past, each scene growing from those around it. However, the scene is always set so clearly that the reader lands firmly in each chosen time zone, so that the skill with which this is written is manifest only in its unobtrusiveness. The most extraordinary component of the novel is the re-telling of Teddy's night-time raids over Germany. One believes completely in Atkinson's research and veracity and yet is not distracted from the thrilling human story of the Halifax bomber's crew and their missions. Heartbreakingly, their youth (average age, twenty-two) and low chance of survival are emphasised and the story broadens to make us consider all the young men (and women) who were lost during the war, many on their first raid. At different points, Teddy sees an airfield littered with aircraft whose crews are no longer alive, and hauntingly, a hangar, containing the many uniforms of those who did not survive their injuries. It is remarkable how many of the tragedies of war Atkinson manages to include, always with a light touch, through characters and scenes. Through the fate of a WAAF that Teddy was friendly with, we see the danger that female service members were in. Through the bombing of a house that he visits, we are reminded of the loss of works of art. And as if World War II was not already an ambitious enough subject, the scope of the novel widens to touch on more recent phenomena. We see Teddy's daughter, Viola, rearing her children in a hippy commune, and touch on her experience at Greenham Common and as part of a Women's Wholefood Cooperative. Atkinson even finds space to poke a little self-satirising fun at female novelists, through Viola whose eventual destiny is to become a successful writer. Her interior monologue shows her ruthlessly tucking away phrases and scenes that she can use in her books, detached at moments when she should have been overwhelmed by pity. In Atkinson's afterword, she says 'Personally I think that all novels are not only fiction, but they are about fiction too.' This is a justification for an unexpected twist which comes at the end of the book and which is designed to jolt the reader, yet it is cleverly signposted by the structure of the novel. As mentioned, the story is told out of chronological sequence, but the episodes mount with increasing significance. Held until the end is Teddy's last flying mission during the war. We have already been told the outcome - Teddy is shot down and finishes the war in a POW camp. Therefore the reader might begin to wonder why so much suspense is building. There is also a foreshadowing of the twist earlier in the novel in the life of Aunt Izzy who turns Teddy's boyhood into a series of best-selling Just William adventures. Atkinson goes on to deliver a climax which, like Ian McEwan's Atonement, will produce a 'marmite' response. With or without this flourish at the end, this book made me meditate on mortality and memory. With Teddy, I found myself wondering by whom and for how long I would be remembered, and for what deeds. A book that can provoke such spiritual stock-taking is certainly one worth reading.