A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson might just be the best book I’ve read this year. I read Life After Life by this author last year and felt the same way about that book then. So far, Kate Atkinson is shaping up to be my author of the decade.
A God in Ruins uses the same characters as Life After Life, although it is not a sequel. Both books can stand alone, but read together they make an amazing whole.
Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, who lives her life over and over and over through the first half of the twentieth century, with variations in how things turn out each time. Ursula’s brother Teddy, who was a fighter pilot during World War Two, appears in Life After Life, but A God in Ruins is his story. Ursula is a dearly loved minor character in A God in Ruins.
The chapters in this book flit back and forwards in time, telling the story of Teddy’s war, time spent with his grandchildren, episodes from his childhood, moments from his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Nancy, his precious pre-wedding romances and, unhappily, of his relationship with his and Nancy’s difficult daughter, Viola. The story is told through the eyes of most of the characters at some point or other, but it is always Teddy’s story.
Viola, Teddy’s daughter, is a horrible mother to her children, the ridiculously named ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’, who luckily, are known as Bertie and Sunny. Viola takes no responsibility for her mistakes of which there are many, and blames Teddy for all of the wrongs of her world. This turns the reader against Viola, as Teddy is always otherwise portrayed as a good man, a good husband and father and a brave war hero.
The chapters which tell of Teddy’s war as a bomber pilot defines his character, showing him to be a strong, brave leader of his crew. The last few chapters which tell of Teddy and his crew being shot down, built up and up to the point where the tension almost became unbearable for me.
I felt as if the author gently educated me about the war, particularly humanising the men of the RAF. Superficially, I know the young men who died in the war were people with real lives and loves and fears but, before reading A God in Ruins, to me they were just the 55 or 60 million. In A God in Ruins, these men became real, as Keith and Mac and Charlie and other characters, with pregnant wives and mothers and fathers and mates. Most of the men were superstitious, carrying lucky charms, or protecting themselves with mascots or rituals, whatever crazy thing they could use to ensure their lives continued. The men loved their planes and their fellow crew members.
The details of the RAF’s flights in this book are incredible. Beautiful words describe bombing enemy cities, and of then further destroying the cities with fire. Bombing people, women and children. The horror is terrible, but these parts of the book also have a slightly detached feel, almost as if the story was being told with a stiff upper lip.
The words and timing of this novel are perfect. There are a great many layers to this story, with secrets to be discovered. After finishing A God in Ruins, I couldn’t read anything else for quite a while, as I wasn’t ready to let go of the story. I wanted to think more about the characters, the possibilities of their lives, the reasons for their characters and morals and also about the title. “A God in Ruins’ comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who tells us that men are gods in ruins. Godliness is hidden somewhere in men where they will never think to look, although they will spend their lives searching.
As a character, Teddy is one of my favourites of all time. He strives to be kind and to live a good life, and if we all did that, the world would be a better place.
My last point may seem trivial, but in this story, Teddy eats a dessert called ‘Far Breton’ while in France. On several occasions, he reminisces about Far Bretons, comparing this custard dessert favourably to a British ‘Plum Duff.’ Obviously I went straight to Google to see what a Far Breton might be, then wrote down the recipe. I wish I’d made a Far Breton to eat while I was reading the book, just to add another level of enjoyment to the story.
From the way A God in Ruins finishes, and due to the precedent set by Life After Life, I have hope that Kate Atkinson might take another character from the Todd family or community and write their story too.