A God in Ruins: A Novel
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company, 480 pages

You needn’t have read Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s excellent ninth novel, to enjoy her tenth—but it helps. While not precisely a sequel, A God in Ruins describes the same upper-middle-class English world as its predecessor and even revisits many of the same scenes. Both revolve around the Todd family—stolid Hugh, prickly Sylvie, and their five children. Both books begin at Fox Corner, the family’s house just outside London in the idyllic years before the Second World War, and march inexorably toward the horrors that follow. The plot of Life After Life turns on a gimmick: Ursula, one of the children, lives and dies and lives again dozens of times. A God in Ruins plays no such tricks. In this book, the dead (and there are many) stay dead.

The hero of A God in Ruins is Teddy, Ursula’s favorite brother and the Todd family’s golden boy. He’s a tenderhearted chap, fond of birds and animals, “a kind boy who gave bullies no quarter” at school, “deplorably honest” at home. As a child, he sleeps with his beloved dog at the foot of his bed and Scouting for Boys tucked under his pillow. Eventually, he grows into a young man self-reflective enough to realize that his existence is charmed: “Happiness, like life itself, was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, as fleeting as the bluebells in the wood, but while it lasted, Fox Corner was an Arcadian dream.”

It’s a dream with a brutal awakening. When England declares war, Teddy is 22 and has reluctantly returned to work in his father’s bank after a blissful year of gentlemanly lollygagging in France. Joining the Royal Air Force seems, at first, both adventure and escape: “Now he realized that the cage doors were opening….He was about to be freed from the shackles of banking. Freed, too, he realized, from the prospect of suburbia, of the children who might turn out to be ‘rather dull.’ Freedom even from the yoke and harness of marriage.” Teddy has always assumed he will marry the actual girl next door—Nancy Shawcross—and live exactly as his parents lived.

But his romantic visions—he imagines himself a skylark or even an angel, fighting bravely for justice—are quickly dashed. The RAF, he realizes, are “not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break the wall.” He’s captain of a Halifax bomber, and Atkinson does a terrific job describing the gritty, unromantic facts of life as a pilot in the RAF. There’s no glamour and very little glory; the bombing raids themselves are claustrophobic and terrifying, while the time between sorties passes in an ecstasy of dread.

“Superstition was rampant on the station,” Teddy recalls. “Everyone in the squadron seemed to have their own voodoo—a lock of hair, a St. Christopher, a playing card, the ubiquitous rabbit foot. There was a flight sergeant who always sang La Donna è Mobile in the crew room when they were getting dressed in their flying clothes and another who had to put his left boot on before his right. If he forgot he had to take all his kit off and start again. He survived the war. The flight sergeant who sang E Donna Mobile did not.”

Bombers crash during takeoff, during landing, over sea, and over land. Engines fail, propellers seize, oxygen tubes freeze, planes collide in midair or release their bombs accidentally on one another. Teddy and his crew bail out over the ocean and spend two nights lost at sea; a week after their rescue, those who survive are back on the runway again.

And yet Teddy survives. Atkinson reveals early in the book that Teddy lives through not only the war, but the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. The novel’s chronology is complex, for though Atkinson does not subvert the laws of physics as she did in Life After Life, the plot of A God in Ruins flashes forward as often as it flashes back. Past, present, and future jostle hectically for the reader’s attention, often within a single scene. One minute we’re with Teddy contemplating his father’s headstone, “still harsh in its newness,” and then the next minute we’re 60 years in the future, the headstone “softened by lichen and the inscription…growing quietly less legible.” At 85, Teddy thinks this will be his last visit to his family’s graves; Atkinson begs to differ. “He would have been surprised to know that he still had another decade and more ahead of him,” she writes.

In less capable hands, this sort of thing could doom a novel: Why keep turning the pages if we know how things turn out? Yet Atkinson knows just when to spill the beans and when to hold back, and there’s plenty of suspense (along with a couple of outright surprises) in the book. Though the action is seldom straightforward, the plot steadily thickens.

Teddy goes home to marry Nancy Shawcross as planned. But the Arcadia Teddy thought he was fighting for—England, Fox Corner, the fields of sunflowers he remembers from France—is, despite the Allied victory, doomed. “The war had been a great chasm and there could be no going back to the other side, to the lives they had before, to the people they were before,” Atkinson writes. “It was as true for them as it was for the whole of poor, ruined Europe.”

He and Nancy beget a perfectly dreadful daughter named Viola; she marries badly, abandons her children Sunny and Bertie, and makes the rest of Teddy’s long life consistently difficult. The reader knows this already (Viola was introduced on the novel’s fifth page), but Atkinson holds back a few surprises; eventually, we’re shown a plausible reason for Viola’s egregious behavior. Still, there’s no denying that Viola’s generation lacks some crucial element of moral fiber. Dealt the same cards, Teddy would have played a very different hand.

And then, at the novel’s drawn-out end, when Teddy lies dying of old age in a nursing home, Atkinson makes a disastrous authorial choice.

It was over. Teddy sank to the silent sea-bed and joined all the tarnished treasure that lay there unseen, forty fathoms deep. He was lost forever, only a small silver hare to keep him company in the dark.

And with a massive roar the fifth wall comes down and the house of fiction falls, taking Viola and Sunny and Bertie with it. They melt into the thin air and disappear. Pouf!

In one of fate’s many iterations in Life After Life, Teddy dies in combat, shot down in his Halifax over the North Sea. Now, in the final pages of A God in Ruins, Atkinson suddenly decides that this truncated version of Teddy’s life was the true one. The book we’ve just finished reading, she announces, was a figment of Teddy’s dying imagination, a fantasy constructed in the final seconds before he plummeted to earth. “All the birds who were never born, all the songs that were never sung and so can only exist in the imagination,” she writes. “And this one is Teddy’s.”

This is not only hackneyed, it’s absurd; an ending better suited for a soap opera. And it’s a conclusion profoundly unworthy of the novel it purports to wrap up—a novel that, until then, is layered, nuanced, and original indeed.

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