A God in Ruins

Author: Kate Atkinson

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: January 2016

a god in ruins

For a long time, during the war, he hadn’t believed in a future—it had seemed like an absurd proposition—and now that he was living in this “afterward,” as he had thought of it during the war, it somehow seemed like an even more absurd proposition.

Teddy is the titular god in ruins (a line from Whitman), a man who can never reclaim innocence because of his past. He was one of the numerous young people sent to serve in World War II, and one of the few who survived it. A lot of the book is about this post-war survival. Not in the standard PTSD sense, but in the simply trying to live a life sense.

Atkinson’s chapters merge and veer with a dreamlike quality, the characters constantly bombarded by memory and snippets of quotations. Teddy reflects on his youth, which he shared with Ursula, the protagonist from Life After Life. Though the books are experiments in the same vein, Atkinson wisely keeps Teddy’s sister at a distance here, restricting the overlap to a few knowing winks for readers of the previous book. (“Ursula’s spirit was freighted with the grief of history.” There’s an understatement.)

The war itself doesn’t really come to the fore until about the halfway mark, and then the author really shines with her displays of urgency, place, and psychology. Just as Life After Life put us on the ground with the post-raid clean-up crews, A God in Ruins lifts us into the shaky, bolts-and-oil flying contraptions of the bomber teams themselves. Here is a novel with a bibliography, and I can’t imagine a more successful example of putting the reader into a specific historical scenario. Teddy is one of the multitudes caught in a nightmare, his brain retrained to focus on the parts at hand so as not to let the whole overwhelm him. Only much later in life can he examine who the soldiers really were:

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.

Really makes you rethink that cover art. And that is Atkinson’s gift: a constant thinking and rethinking, tinkering and retinkering. The great war looms over everything in Teddy’s life, and comes to define how he interacts with his difficult daughter, Viola, and his often mysterious wife, Nancy. It all swirls and circles into place beautifully. And so painfully. Why do we read books that just underline how we are all, in various ways, birds thrown against a wall? I don’t know. Sometimes our hearts can barely handle life, then in an insane twisting we are drawn to art that we can also barely handle.

Or maybe it’s that Kate Atkinson is just that good. When a modern master is in control, we can’t turn away from the beautiful carnage.

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