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In an afterword, Kate Atkinson describes A GOD IN RUINS as not a sequel but a companion to her spectacular 2013 novel LIFE AFTER LIFE. That book recounted the multiple deaths and lives of Ursula Todd and focussed largely on the lives of women, especially the main character, in the twentieth century. Readers of this novel will remember the great love of Ursula's life, her baby brother Teddy, who died along with her on several occasions, and finally died on his own on a bombing raid over Germany, only to be delightfully resurrected after spending two years in a POW camp. Teddy is the main character in A GOD IN RUINS and I do not think it constitutes a spoiler to reveal that this time he dies only once and in extreme old age.
Virginia Woolf once remarked that human nature changed in 1910 (in December, as it happens) and scholars ever since have been arguing about what she might have meant by it. 1910 is the year of Ursula's birth, and several times of her death. Teddy, on the other hand, is born in 1914, and there can be no argument about the significance of that year. Teddy was born with the Great War and would grow up to fight in its second act. His service as a bomber pilot was the single most significant period in his life. Before it, he was a desultory artist, then a bank clerk. After it, he rusticates himself in Yorkshire and devotes himself to cultivating his garden and writing a slightly irritating nature column for a local newspaper. He has but one ambition and that is to be kind. Sadly, he singularly fails on at least two occasions.
Thus, a perfectly ordinary man. Except he isn't. The war made all the difference. In it, Teddy follows the advice his father (who served in the first war) gave him as he went off to boarding school - "You need to be a stoic, old chap. It will be a trial, that's the point of it really, I suppose." Throughout the more than seventy bombing runs he piloted before finally winding up in a POW camp, Teddy remains steady, cheerful, and immensely skilled. Though he is not yet thirty years old, the members of his crews universally respect and admire him, seeing him as a sort of father figure. Teddy is modest with it, but still those hours in the air, over Germany, are those in which he is most fully alive. They are also those in which he is dispensing death at an even more horrifying rate than he is aware of at the time. Even so, viewing the filthy smoke rising over Hamburg, he knows "in his secret heart that one day a reckoning would come due." Whether his foreboding is well founded is up to the reader to decide.
The war, though thoroughly life-changing, appears to be an experience that cannot be communicated, even to those closest and who might perhaps understand. Teddy's wife, Nancy, spent the war at Bletchley Park, working directly with Alan Turing on the Enigma machine. Although even to this day those who worked at Bletchley feel constrained to silence about their work there, Nancy wants to share with Teddy, because "secrets have the power to kill a marriage," but Teddy doesn't want to know, presumably because he cannot share his war with her, fearful of revealing the weaknesses he convicts himself of and that he strives to hide.
At one point, his thoroughly repellant daughter, Viola, hoots in derision at his reticence. "How can you think such crap? The stiff upper lip! Do you honestly think the world was a better place when men kept their feelings hidden?" Teddy has just one word in answer: "Yes." The reader, who has by now fallen completely for Teddy, might feel that Atkinson is endorsing the old-fashioned Tory virtues of heroic self-discipline and emotional restraint. But it is not so simple. Secrets, it turns out, do have the power to kill a marriage and the sort of ancestral stoicism that shapes Teddy's character has the power to ruin his grandson's life.
By now it should be evident that, like LIFE AFTER LIFE, A GOD IN RUINS is not a crime novel, though a number of crimes do feature in it. There is the war, for one thing, and the ruthless killing by all sides of the countless children, old people, non-combatants in whose name the war was supposed to be fought. There is at least one murder as well, and a shocking one at that. But one strength of this novel is Atkinson's remarkable ability to immerse the reader in the story of a life neither perfectly lived nor especially noteworthy. Another is her brilliant use of her research material. The bombing runs have the ring of authenticity and hold us in suspense, even when we know (or think we do) how it will all turn out. Atkinson's four Jackson Brodie detective novels were notorious for playing fast and loose with the conventions of crime fiction. The two Todd family novels also play with the conventions of the war novel and of the historical novel as well.
If you are looking for a big, engrossing novel to take to the cottage where you can read uninterruptedly while the rain patters on the roof, this should be high on your list this summer. It is serious, but not heavy, witty, challenging, and absorbing. And if you don't have a cottage and won't be taking a holiday, read it anyway, preferably along with LIFE AFTER LIFE. You won't regret it.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2015
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