A Good Life, A Flawed Novel
A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson
Reviewed by Don MacLean
Kate Atkinson likes to write about ordinary individuals swept up in extraordinary circumstances. In two separate but companion novels, Life After Life and A God In Ruins, Atkinson tells the stories of Isabel Todd and Teddy Todd, respectively. The Todds are an English family living in England through World War Two. Isabel and Teddy are sister and brother. In Life After Life the reader follows different variations on Ursula’s life. In so doing Atkinson explores the competing roles of choices and chance in shaping one’s fate. In a nod to the possibility of a brighter future, the novel closes with Ursula celebrating the war’s end with Teddy and his girlfriend Nancy in the most English of ways: over a beer at a pub. And why not? Peace has been restored and fascism defeated. Liberty to drink and be merry are among the rewards for those who survived the four plus years of barbarism.
Although Teddy figures prominently at the novel’s end, he was on the periphery of most of the action in Life After Life. In A God in Ruins, he is the main character and the protagonist. The novel assumes a sort of dual role. It explores the same war and the same family but through the eyes and experiences of Teddy instead of Ursula. Ursula experiences the war as a nurse tending to the injured and dying. Teddy experiences it from the perspective of a British fighter pilot engaged in bombing raids over enemy territory. But A God in Ruins also picks up where the previous novel ends. It takes the reader into the twenty first century. Its sweep is meant to allow for perspective: what did the liberty Teddy helped to win actually wrought?
The effects of war on those who fight are unpredictable. It can be profoundly debilitating for many, as the high number of veterans who are either suicidal or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will attest. Others might relish the danger and survive the experience relatively intact. For others, it can liberate the most generous of impulses and instill a sort of wisdom. Teddy is this type of pilot. Atkinson writes of him:
He had made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to kind, to live a good quiet life. Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. Quietly. And that would be his redemption. Even if he could add only a feather to the balance it would be some kind of repayment for being spared.
Teddy, of course, does survive the war. Indeed much of the novel revolves around his life after the hostilities have ceased. To a large extent the promise he made to himself is kept. He settles down with Nancy, his childhood friend and neighbour growing up. They live a quiet life in the country. Teddy has various dalliances during the war. Women are easily attracted to him and circumstances give rise to fleeting romances. Why not have a night of passionate sex when you know your plane might be shot down over the North Sea the next day? Still after the war both he and Nancy feel as though getting married and sharing their lives together seems like the most natural thing in the world. What their relationship lacks in passion is made up for in a steady, deeply abiding affection. They have a single child, Viola.
Various themes run through A God in Ruins. The most explicit and recurring is summed up in a phrase repeated throughout the novel. Reap what you sow. The present is pregnant with multiple possibilities. The choices one makes now will shape who you become. This theme, however, runs counter to another, more implicit one. Atkinson’s novel is as much about wartime experiences as it is those of peace time. Yet war is the example, par excellence, of how life can ruthlessly impose itself on individuals. War wrenches men and women from their peace time existences and thrusts them into scenarios over which they have scarcely any control and which are often too horrific to even contemplate, let alone endure. Indeed, not only do these themes conflict, the latter can make the former seem quaint, even trivial. What meaningful choices did World War Two soldiers actually have?
These conflicting themes feed into another, namely, the challenging relationships between generations. Teddy is a salt of the earth type of guy: brave, honest, loyal and straightforward. The sort of father that any child would typically cherish. Yet, for reasons this review won’t divulge, Viola has a strained relationship with him from a young age. Even as time passes there is forever a gap between them, not only intellectually but emotionally as well. As a young woman Viola thinks of her father as a member of the type of world she fervently rejects. He’s of the generation that brought the world to the brink of ruin. She’s of a generation interested in peace and in cultivating a more sustainable relationship with the earth. The strain between them is rich with narrative possibility.
Alas, Viola as a character does not work. Even though she repeatedly transforms herself, in every version she strikes the reader as one dimensional. Her one dimension, moreover, renders her completely unlikable. As described by Atkinson, she has no redeeming features. She is a fraud and is usually acting selfishly, even cruelly. Her first husband is equally odious and one dimensional. Both are without a trace of nuance. Viola visits Teddy towards the end of his life. Her visits are always an act obligation or worse, never of love or affection. She regards him as little more than a burdensome, wasting piece of flesh who cannot die too soon.
Related: The Walk of Life.
Neither the novel’s structure nor Atkinson’s prose compensates for the characters’ shortcomings. The playful, unpredictable element that made Life After Life so enjoyable is, regrettably, absent from A God in Ruins. Without it, moving back and forth in time, as Atkinson does, serves to stall the narrative as much as propel it. Almost all element of surprise is eliminated in later chapters when you discover in early chapters how and when various characters die. Similarly, there were no significant plot twists; no moments in the novel that pushed the story in an unanticipated direction, thereby making those earlier revelations seem less premature.
As readers, we must be careful not to extrapolate. Teddy and Viola are surely not meant to be entirely representative of their respective generations. Nevertheless it’s hard to escape the idea that Atkinson is making a point about the generation that followed those who sacrificed themselves so as to stop fascism’s relentless advance. If so, what is the point? That one of the risks of liberty is that those who enjoy it may be shallow, selfish, destructive and ungrateful towards those who did so much to bestow it upon them. True enough. In Atkinson’s hands, however, this point too often feels like a sweeping judgement. This is the novel’s great weakness.