It is going to be very hard to write about Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins without mentioning its predecessor Life After Life, which I loved and is one of my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. The first reason for this is that as I am sure many of you will be aware A God in Ruins is a ‘companion’ novel to its predecessor, as we follow Teddy Todd who is the brother of Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula. The second reason is that if you haven’t read Life After Life (and you really should have because it’s brilliant, I was on the panel that crowned it winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize) then I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience you have to come. Thirdly I just think to compare them is lazy as yes they have some of the same characters and situations, and indeed this one nods to the other on occasion, yet all books should stand alone in their own right. A God in Ruins certainly does.
A God in Ruins is essentially the story of the life of Teddy Todd. We follow him from his younger years with his siblings, under the domineering matriarchy of their mother Sylvia, through the First World War and then onto the second, where he serves his nation in the skies, and onto life afterwards when he becomes a husband, father and grandfather. To give you all that information doesn’t spoil anything either, as it is the story of a life though not a linear one. We the reader see Teddy’s life through a jumble of periods in time, perspectives and people and builda picture puzzle of his life by putting together the set pieces.
I am a huge fan of Atkinson’s and have been ever since my Gran gave me a copy of the brilliantly bizarre Human Croquet. Her writing is quite simply brilliance. Firstly she is a master of the art of a bloody good story; one of my favourite things she does is use parentheses (which you will all know I am a fan of, though not as much as I love a comma) to make you feel that she herself is telling you the story over a cup of tea. Secondly she is fantastic at characters; who all walk straight out of the book, off the page and probably down the same street as you. Thirdly she plays with the form of writing without it ever being pretentious or a little too clever for its own good; she can mix up a story so the reader has the joy or putting it all together and play tricks with language (like with Mr Manners). Fifthly, she has a wonderful sense of humour and knows just when to use it, bringing laughter at just the right moments, even when they are dark.
Teddy took the train back north the same day and lay awake all night worrying about his only child and her only child. Viola had been a lovely baby, just perfect. But then all babies were perfect, he supposed. Even Hitler.
I think with A God in Ruins, and with the creation of Teddy, Atkinson may have brought us one of her most vivid characters, who is also one of her most subtle. We have the enigma that is Ursula, the wonderfully comic and sarcastic snobbish Sylvia (who I could read an entire book about) and the vile Viola. Teddy, and indeed his wife Nancy to a degree, is a very average man who does some extraordinary (to us, as they are just his life to him – another sign of Atkinson’s genius) things and who we get to see every side of be it through his eyes or those around him which I found utterly fascinating.
Her father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. That was a nice phrase. She tucked that away for later use as well. She was writing a novel. It was about a young girl, brilliant and precocious, and her troubled relationship with her single-parent father. Like all writing it was a secretive act. An unspeakable practice. Viola sensed there was a better person inside her than the one who wanted to punish the world for its bad behaviour all the time (when her own was so reproachable). Perhaps writing would be a way of letting that person out in the daylight.
I should add here that in A God in Ruins even the characters who only show up for a page or two all come fully formed and often (through Atkinson cleverly and almost unnoticeably stepping in and telling us of the future even though we are in the past) giving us their life ahead. These seemingly minor characters can also be used to highlight issues with a real poignancy, for those of you who have read it I will give you one name, Hilda – completely got me when I was least expecting it to.
I really wanted to have a chat with Atkinson (if only we could all be so lucky) after reading the book because I wanted to ask her if one of the themes in A God in Ruins is ‘what makes a hero’ or ‘what being a hero means’. As we follow Teddy’s life we see what it is that can make an ordinary person become a hero and how a hero can go back to being an ordinary person. There are several moments that made me think of this. Most obviously there are all the ordinary people drawn in to fight wars, who go from being civilians to fighters or spies yet then what happens to them after the war when ‘normal’ life resumes. What do they do and how do they cope with the change? This in itself leads to what it means to be a war hero?
‘Teddy won’t shoot anything,’ Sylvie said decisively. ‘He doesn’t kill.’
‘He would if he had to,’ Nancy said. ‘Can you pass the salt please?’
He has killed, Teddy thought. Many people. Innocent people. He had personally helped ruin poor Europe. ‘I am here, you know,’ he said, ‘sitting next to you.’
Yet in giving us the full story of Teddy’s life Atkinson looks at the quieter moments of heroism too. The moments that are heroic yet on a much smaller minimal scale, like a selfless act of pure love, a simple moment of kindness, or something which seems insignificant and costs nothing yet can change a person’s perception of themselves, their life or the world around them. She also looks at what it means simply to be good.
Previously on this blog I have mentioned I feel that the world wars are periods in time which have been well mined, possibly overly, by contemporary writers and so really need a different angle in order to make me sit up and take notice. I have to admit that initially when the sections of Teddy’s life during the Second World War came up I was worried that I might possibly lose interest. I had to study the Blitz at least three times at school and so I always think I am going to be lectured to. On occasion I initially wanted the pre and post war stories of Teddy’s life to take over again. This faded the more into the war we went as Atkinson writes from the lesser used angle of the skies brilliantly and one particular chapter had me on the edge of the sofa. However the most poignant moment of the whole of A God in Ruins is linked to the war and, without giving anything away, it is a single paragraph which will hit you over the head like the shovel (and probably make you cry a little bit as it did me) and make you understand why Atkinson has written the book she has. I will say no more than that.
As you may have guessed I thought A God in Ruins was rather ruddy marvellous. It charmed me, entertained me, thrilled me, beguiled me and then in the simplest, smallest and most understated of moments completely broke me when I never expected it to. It is also a wonderful insight into what it is that makes us human. It also does something slightly unusual with the Second World War book, yet probably the one of the most affecting alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I would highly recommend you read it. I cannot wait to see what Atkinson has up her sleeves for us next.