A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, review: ‘a dazzling read’

A  God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson is now available at Liberty Books stores and online.
Web link: http://libertybooks.com/bookdetail.aspx?pid=27820

Kate Atkinson’s sequel to ‘Life After Life’ enthrals James Walton right up to its final twist.

In the celebrated final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, there’s a moment of unexpected but piercing sympathy for the smarmy Captain Darling – a man, it turns out, who never wanted anything too much from the life he’s about to lose. “Rather hoped I’d get through the whole show,” he tells Blackadder, “go back to work at Pratt and Sons, keep wicket for the Croydon Gentlemen, marry Doris.”

It’s a sentiment that would have been entirely understood by Teddy Todd, the main character in Kate Atkinson’s triumphant new novel. Even as a boy, in the Home Counties of the Twenties, Teddy never has difficulty following his father’s advice to “neither sink nor float, just sort of paddle about in the middle”. But once he begins flying bombing missions in the Second World War, he becomes almost defiantly unambitious in his plans for the future (if there is one). Should he survive, Teddy vows, he will simply “try to… live a good quiet life”. Unlike Darling, however, he’s then given the chance to live it out all the way to old age.

Teddy will already be known to the many fans of Atkinson’s last book, Life After Life, which presented several different versions of the life of his sister Ursula. Despite its unashamed tricksiness, Life After Life never forgot the old-school virtues of plot, character and perfectly paced, emotionally charged storytelling – which may be why it went on to combine prize-winning critical acclaim with huge sales. (In 2014, the paperback outsold every adult novel in Britain except Gone Girl and Dan Brown’s Inferno.) Displaying all the same virtues, A God in Ruins now picks up and sticks to just one of those versions, or a slight variation on it: Teddy signs up as a bomber pilot at the start of the war, is shot down and reported dead in 1944, but to Ursula’s astonished delight reappears in 1945, having been released from a German prisoner of war camp.

Given that 90 per cent of the men who joined Bomber Command in 1939 didn’t survive the war, Teddy is understandably surprised to find himself alive afterwards. None the less, he gets on with his life the way he always has: by getting on with it. He marries his childhood sweetheart Nancy, loves her in a “robust and dependable” way and works as a schoolteacher and then a local journalist – at all stages content to “settle for ordinariness”. Even when Nancy dies and their daughter Viola proves something of a monster, Teddy never wavers in his stoicism, or breaks that wartime vow.

And in this, he plainly meets with Atkinson’s full approval – because A God in Ruins is, among other things, a wholehearted and perhaps even rather subversive celebration of such resolutely unfashionable qualities as choosing duty over self-fulfillment and emotional restraint over causing distress to others. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Dad,” Viola says to Teddy in his later life, “How can you think such crap?… Do you honestly think that the world was a better place when men kept their feelings hidden?” “Yes,” Teddy replies.

Atkinson’s attitude to Viola, meanwhile, is one of virtually unremitting, and at times slightly weird, dislike. Teddy’s daughter is attacked not just for her fecklessness, selfishness, filial ingratitude and maternal neglect, but also for her dreadful cooking, her mistreatment of books (“food and drink… all over the pages”) and her failure to have heard of Voltaire.

But then, what can you expect of a woman who brings up her young children in a hippy commune – a place that Atkinson treats with a degree of scorn that any retired colonel of the Sixties would have been hard pressed to match. And that’s before Viola moves on to such other unspeakable things as feminist peace camps and a Woman’s Wholefood Cooperative – “which basically meant that they bought big ugly sacks of chaff and husks, masquerading as muesli”.

In fact, Atkinson’s opposition to utopias of all kinds is central to the book – with the dangerous delusions they represent standing in doomed opposition to Teddy’s noble willingness to accept whatever life brings. (In his case, this includes the growing post-war distaste for the bombing of German civilians, for which he risked his life and many of his friends lost theirs.) But there is, of course, a serious risk involved in this approach.

Kate Atkinson: a writer’s life

As plodders go, Teddy is always enormously likeable. Yet the danger remains that his lack of passion, however passionately Atkinson defends it, will make him – and the novel – end up seeming a bit dull. So, how come A God in Ruins is such a dazzling read?

Well, one obvious reason is that Atkinson gives Teddy’s wartime experiences the full treatment in a series of thrilling set pieces. Even more impressive, though, is her ability to invest the more everyday events with a similar grandeur, achieved through her constant intermingling of past, present and future. Throughout the book, Teddy’s memories constantly trigger other ones, while Atkinson herself flashes both backwards and forwards to deepen or broaden the significance of what’s going on at any specific point. When Teddy’s father dies in 1940, for example, she not only takes us back to happier times, but also forward to Teddy showing his granddaughter the lichen-covered grave in 1999.

In lesser hands, this device might be either irritating or confusing. Here, it becomes something almost as innovative as Atkinson’s technique in Life After Life – and possibly more authentic as an expression of how it feels to be alive. After all, not many of us live more than once; yet, thanks to memory, we do experience the different parts of our lives at the same time. (Just think of how many memories from the different parts of yours you’ve had over the past day or two.) And even for a man as unassuming as Teddy, the result is a sort of personal mythology that bestows on those lives a far more epic resonance than an objective assessment of the evidence might suggest.

But I can’t put it off any longer: the bad news about reviewing A God in Ruins is that it ends with one of the most devastating twists in recent fiction – one I definitely can’t reveal but which is, as Atkinson’s afterword acknowledges, “the whole raison d’être of the novel”. In the circumstances, about all I can say (apart from urging you not to try to guess it) is that it adds a further level of overwhelming poignancy to an already extraordinarily affecting book.
This Book review is written by James Walton and published in The Telegraph.
Web link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11591928/A-God-in-Ruins-by-Kate-Atkinson-review.html

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