This book is an unabashedly sprawling family epic, turning on and shaped by the horror of WWII. It captured my heart and squeezed it tight and compelled me forwards and held me on right until the last page. I loved Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. Having never read anything by her before, this book’s distinctive cover just seemed to keep appearing in my life – book reviews, on the shelves at my local independent, on my Kindle – that while on holidays I took the dive and bought it.
The title comes from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that opens the book: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” In the 20th Century, it was absolutely undeniably realised that man is not innocent: the savagery inflicted upon one another in two wars to end all wars. Edward “Teddy” Todd is our main character in A God in Ruins and this is the story of his war and its legacy. A RAF pilot, a father and husband, a young boy growing up in the Todd’s beautiful home, we flit across time and perspectives from chapter to chapter so mysteries and turns of life are heartbreakingly revealed to us before the characters, but at the same time some core kernels of characters’ secrets remain so closely hidden it takes their whole fragmented-chronology lifetime and the book to be revealed.
“He had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future.”
This is the basis for telling Teddy’s story: there is a life after the war that he never expected to live, that his family are glad he has to live. Echoing through time is the reminder that perhaps he shouldn’t be here, and that others he knew aren’t.
The story is told with such fullness and care. All of the characters no matter the size of their role are wholly realised. The narrative is welcoming and enveloping; immediately involving you in the characters’ lives. It’s an absorbing book to read with characters so magnetic and events so dramatic. And at the heart of it, Teddy is a lovely boy, a wonderful man, and a complex character.
There is a tragedy in this book that, on reflection, I suppose is a tragedy in life. Teddy quietly learns the lessons of life, the losses and the meaninglessness and the suffering shapes him. But what he gains is not passed on, the mistakes have to be made by the next generation. Perhaps it is a failure of perspective: you cannot wholly exist in someone’s consciousness like you can in literature, so even in this fiction children do not fully understand their own father’s foibles and fears.
“It was then that Teddy realised that they were 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 that wall.”
What I didn’t know while reading was that A God in Ruins is a companion work, or sequel, to Atkinson’s earlier Life After Life. It is here that readers were initially introduced to the Todd family, with Teddy’s bewitchingly interesting and intelligent sister Ursula leading the narrative. Ursula was an example of one of the joys of A God in Ruins: such fully realised characters, so elegantly and sparingly articulated. There was so much going on under the surface, so much thought and warmth and detail. I finished that book wanting more of that whole family, especially Ursula.
So I bought Life After Life immediately after and was left disappointed. Apparently this book was universally successful – with both popular appeal and literary acclaim – but after the beauty and heartbreak of A God in Ruins I felt sad and used and bored. Ursula is given every ‘what if’ opportunity of life and death: every point where she could have died is played out, and then we go back to the beginning where she makes it past that danger and we play that out until the next point of death. It is emotionally exhausting and distancing. And so Life After Life does not get a stand-alone review by me, it makes me too despondent. I suppose it is the beginning, the scaffolding, of A God in Ruins, introducing the family and the ideas and the times, but the second book is so, so much more than the first.
A God in Ruins is a beautiful, warm, wonderful, heartbreaking piece of writing. Despite the disappointment of Life After Life, I still wholeheartedly recommend the story of Teddy. Atkinson writes in a way that shows she cares for her characters; she has fully inhabited their lives and their possibilities and their perspectives and their times, and A God in Ruins is a beautiful, fragmented capture of this.