Thursday 17 October 2019

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson - A chronicle of changes and a personal journey

World at war: Daisy Badger as Claire Hillman in ITV's Hone Fires, set in World War 11.
World at war: Daisy Badger as Claire Hillman in ITV's Hone Fires, set in World War 11.
A God in Ruins cover

Anne Marie Scanlon

Kate Atkinson's 2013 novel Life After Life was a genre-defying sensation and that very rare thing - a book that was both popular and met with critical acclaim. Life After Life followed the many incarnations of Ursula Todd who died and was reborn over and over again.

A God in Ruins follows her younger brother Teddy, who in Life After Life died whilst on a bombing raid during the Second World War. Atkinson calls A God in Ruins a 'companion' piece rather than a follow up and she departs from the theme of multiple versions of the one life.

But of course each of us experiences multiple 'lives' during our lifetime as we age and change and so does Teddy.

A God in Ruins depicts Teddy from his idyllic 1920s childhood at Fox Corner - a childhood thinly disguised by his aunt Izzy in her 'Augustus' books, through to his active service as a bomber pilot during World War Two to his quiet, almost dull, post-war existence.

A God in Ruins isn't just Teddy's story but also that of modern Britain. Through Teddy's life Atkinson maps out the, sometimes traumatic, changes that Britain has undergone from the settled 1920s - when everyone 'knew their place' through the disruption and horror of the Second World War and its confusing aftermath.

Viola, Teddy's rather unlovable daughter, spends most of her life on a painful search for a personal identity (often reflected in her wardrobe).

Viola not only rejects her father but everything he and his generation stand for - Teddy put duty first, Viola puts Viola first. Yet, despite her vilification of her father, Viola is a less than perfect parent herself often abandoning her children, Bertie (christened Moon in Viola's hippy phase) and Sunny (Sun), whilst she seeks out fulfilment.

At one point, Sunny, her son, is left with his paternal grandparents, fading gentry who are desperately clinging to their vision of the world, and deliberately blinkered to anything that doesn't fit with it, something that has dreadful consequences for both their son and grandson. As Teddy's grandchildren move into adulthood their lives and beliefs are very different but both are reflective of modern British society.

Teddy's war is central to the whole story and Atkinson manages to celebrate the dutifulness of Teddy's generation whilst at the same time portraying the horror of war for those on both sides. "They were burning burnt-out towns, bombing bombed out cities… Defeat them in the air and save the world from the horror of land warfare, from Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele. But it wasn't working. When they were knocked down they got up again, the stuff of nightmares, an endless harvest of dragon's teeth sprouting on the plain of Ares."

If A God in Ruins were a straightforward chronology of Teddy's life alongside those of his daughter and grandchildren it would be, thanks to the wartime details, powerful and moving, but rather than telling the family stories straight, Atkinson instead mixes up time and place.

In lesser hands this disruption of chronology could easily be messy and confusing but Atkinson is a genius at weaving the past, present and future together.

Sometimes the reader alone is privy to the actual future of the character whilst they wish and hope for something else. Other times the thoughts come directly from the characters' heads such as when Viola, who stops fictionalising herself and finds success as a novelist, thinks about her own life as she and her dying father watch the Diamond Jubilee celebrations on the TV.

"Viola was barely a year old when the Queen was crowned and had never known another monarch. She would see Charles ascend to the throne, she supposed, possibly William if she lived long enough, but she wouldn't see that fat baby become George VII. Life was finite. Civilizations rose and fell and in the end everything was dust and sand, even that fat royal baby. Nothing beside remained. Hotels, maybe." The fat baby wasn't born until a year after the Jubilee, but this is no oversight on Atkinson's behalf.

Images of dust, sand and water, all signifying the transience of life appear throughout the novel. After the war Teddy "found it difficult to look at the North Sea without thinking of it as one enormous watery graveyard, full of the rust and bones of aircraft and youthful bodies."

The ending is a shock which left this reader both angry and grief-stricken (but at least explains Atkinson's faux pas about the baby prince). But these strong emotions are testament to the talent of Atkinson who has built a world and characters who are wholly convincing and believable.

A God in Ruins

Kate Atkinson



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