It is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and wouldn’t you know, just this morning I finished listening to A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, one of the best novels about a veteran I have encountered. One of the best things about the reading life it that it is rich in coincidence and mysterious connections. I don’t care one bit that the book is about a British veteran and not an American. Wars, when they begin, are all about sovereignty, national pride, or righteous indignation, but in the end they are about the shared misery of the human experience. Then after a few years, when the mess is cleaned up, the rubble cleared away and shiny new buildings erected, when the bodies become memories or neatly mowed graveyards, the war is revived as a heroic story, at least for the victors. If you want to read a novel about the impact of war upon the mind and soul of a decent human being you can hardly do better than this one.
A God in Ruins is “a companion rather than a sequel” (according to the author) to Life After Life, Atkinson’s wonderful novel about Ursula Todd’s continual life do-overs. Ursula keeps dying and starting over, each time improving her life from felt rather than remembered experience. A God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, the fourth of the five Todd children and the family darling. The novel tells Teddy’s story in non-sequential chapters that alternate between his life as an RAF bomber pilot in the World War II and his more prosaic post-war life as a husband, father, and grandfather.
Teddy’s life as an RAF pilot is described in detail with just enough technical detail to make it real without boring the non-technical reader. He is acutely aware that the bombers are “birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.” During a short leave, Teddy allows himself to become engaged to marry Nancy Shorecross, his childhood sweetheart, but only to indulge a momentary fantasy. He does not really believe he has a future. This is very realistic. Of the RAF pilots who were active at the beginning of the war, only 10 percent lived to see the end of it.
In Life After Life we come to know Teddy as a sweet sensitive boy who loves nature. In A God in Ruins, he is bored stiff working in the bank with his father when war breaks out with Hiltler’s Germany. He joins the Royal Air Force (RAF) and becomes a bomber pilot. His mission is to fly the planes that bomb German cities to smithereens. He witnesses horrible training accidents, loses most of his crew members in crashes, and hears of the horrible deaths of other friends and also lovers. (In the post novel interview with the author, Atkinson says that most of the incidents described in the book were based on historical accounts of things that actually happened.) To some extent he walls himself off emotionally, clinging to firm belief that he is serving his country and that his country is in the right. He keeps his humanity in tact, especially in his relationship with his sister Ursula and his dog Lucky, the dog that Ursula rescues during the London Blitz in Life After Life and then gives to Teddy. The plucky little dog stays with Teddy throughout the war and even stows aboard on one of the bombing ops.
Though he must give up all qualms or even thoughts about turning cities full of women and children into fiery bowels of hell, he resolves that if, by some miracle, he should survive the war, he will be kind. It’s the only feather he can offer to the balance of good and evil. After the war he keeps that promise and returns, though scarred (“a god in ruins”), to a new more somber version of his nature-loving self, like Candide, cultivating his own garden. Although this novel is more traditional than its predecessor – Teddy get to live only one life with its terrible decisions and irretrievable losses – there are hints that things could have been different and perhaps in some parallel universe, are different. He could have gone down on his final flight with the Halifax and his daughter Viola and his grandchildren would never have existed. I got the sense that with the millions of youthful deaths World War II there were born millions of alternative stories that might be happening in millions of alternative worlds. The novel presents the morality and non-morality of war from several angles, letting readers draw our own conclusions.
In addition to the impact of the war on Teddy’s soul, another theme was the contrast between the war experience and the post-war world. This experience is mostly expressed through Teddy’s messed-up daughter Viola. Viola is a trip: she considers herself a free spirit but is really confused, angry, and irresponsible. In her young adult years she hooks up with a blue-blood drug addict named Dominic and lives a counterculture life, squatting in a group house or living on a commune farm. She and Dominic have two children who they name Sun and Moon, but who end up being called Sunny and Bertie (Roberta is Moon’s middle name). Sunny and Bertie pretty much end up being raised by Teddy.
Throughout most of the novel Viola was utterly unlikeable. She is a horrible mother, narcissistic, and rude and insensitive to her father (“Here we go. Another history lesson.”) In a charmingly humble way Atkinson makes this horrible woman a successful novelist. You realize gradually that Viola’s problems have a lot to do with losing her mother to brain cancer at the age of nine. Toward the end of the novel Viola manages to come to a painful point of self-understanding and honest reckoning that made me almost want to like her.
I enjoyed the many references to poetry, literature, and children’s stories especially since some of my favorites get prominent mentions. Teddy is such a fan of Anthony Trollope that that Barchester Towers is what his granddaughter reads to him on his deathbed. Bertie keeps a bag of “lovelies” with her to help keep her perspective when she works in the advertising world – mostly quotes from favorite poets such as Emily Dickinson. The grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie, to deal with some scary childhood experiences, turn to fairy tales for understanding and comfort. And of course there are references to the fictional Adventures of Augustus, a children’s book series Teddy’s Aunt Izzie wrote years before, supposedly based on him.
One additional point: this novel has a lot to do with death, is in fact permeated with death, like the shadow that haunts us all our lives and also in the sense of its painful prosaic reality. Teddy lives to the age of 98 and we find out how each of his family members dies. His wife Nancy, an atheist and scientific pragmatist, face her cancer death in 1960 with unflinching stoicism” “And then Nancy was no more.” This uncompromising ceasing to exist is the scariest conception of death I know but there is also talk of angels and dogs in heaven. It’s as if Atkinson gives each character a death according to their own expectations and beliefs. And who knows? Maybe that’s exactly how it happens: atheists experience nothing and believers experience what they believe in.
The novel takes us all the way to 2012, so we have mentions of the terrorist attack of 911, smartphones, and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. The final chapters, which include Teddy’s final moments, are beautiful and surprisingly whimsical. I liked that when I finished the novel I felt a sense of possibilities opening rather and a door (coffin lid) clanking shut.
* * * * * * * * *
NOTE: I listed to the unabridged audio version of this book, read by Alex Jennings.