Reviewed by Harriet
He had made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long dark watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to be 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. When it was all over and the reckoning fell due, it may be that he would be in need of that feather.
This is Teddy Todd, whose story is told in A God in Ruins. Readers of Kate Atkinson’s last novel, Life After Life, will recognise Teddy as the much loved younger brother of Ursula, whose recurrent and variable life stories were told there. Knowing that this was a ‘companion’ novel, I wondered if Atkinson would use the same experimental technique again, but of course she doesn’t. Instead the novel moves around through Teddy’s life achronogically, so that a chapter about his childhood or adolescence may be followed by one about his old age, or, as very frequently, about his experiences as a pilot in WW2. This is a complex and daring structure, made even more impressive by the fact that Atkinson hints at essential events in his life but witholds them, sometimes until almost the end of the novel.
Briefly, Teddy grows up in a comfortable middle class house in the country. He has ambitions to be a writer, and after Oxford spends a year working on farms in England and France, but the writing doesn’t come out as well as he’d hoped. He tries working in a bank, which he dislikes, but then war breaks out and he becomes a pilot, surviving against all the odds. After the war he marries Nancy, his childhood sweetheart, and their only child Viola is born. But something – it’s not clear what at first – happens to Nancy, so Teddy raises Viola by himself. And Viola turns out to be a monster – selfish, lazy, incapable of loving her two children, who have a miserable childhood. Teddy grows old, is more or less forced into a retirement home by Viola, and ends his days very old and uncommunicative in a nursing home.
Put baldly like that, perhaps this doesn’t sound like a particularly interesting story. But believe me, it is, in so many ways. Viola is a most extraordinary and chilling creation, always discontented with her life but lacking any energy to change it, angry with her father and with her little boy Sunny, with whom she has one of the most dysfunctional relationships imaginable. Her life with the childrens’ father, a failed painter who is usually stoned and certainly has mental problems, is so depressing that it’s almost funny, as they move from a bedsit filled with Dominic’s hideous canvasses to a commune in the country where everyone is supposed to muck in but nobody does. We may wonder from time to time why Viola turned out the way she did, and although this is never fully spelled out, an event in her childhood which is revealed late on in the novel goes some way to explaining it. Luckily the children are saved to some extent by their relationship with their grandfather, who gives them the love they never get from their mother.
Central to the novel is the account of Teddy’s war. Meticulously researched by Atkinson (there’s an impressive list of her sources at the end) these passages bring to vivid life those long and dangerous years, in which every airman carried with him the knowledge that his chances of surviving the next mission were slim indeed. Teddy’s own survival comes to seem almost miraculous, though we know from the start that he was finally captured and ended the war in a German camp. This truly is war seen from the inside, where life alternates between short periods of leave, during which it seemed essential to keep quiet about one’s experiences in the service, and the dangers and horrors of the endless bombing missions over Germany, with their concomitant losses of life. It’s evident that the pilots had to block off any thoughts about who and what they were wiping out on the ground, as Teddy’s part in the bombing of Hamburg makes only too clear. It’s only afterwards that he can acknowledge what he has done:
‘Teddy won’t shoot anything,’ Sylvie said decisively. ‘He doesn’t kill.’
‘He would if he had to,’ Nancy said. ‘Can you pass the salt please?’
He has killed, Teddy thought. Many people. Innocent people. He had personally helped ruin poor Europe. ‘I am here, you know,’ he said, ‘sitting next to you.’
So what is A God in Ruins actually about? Atkinson confronts this question in her Afterword, and concludes that it’s about fiction and the Fall from Grace. OK – yes, I can see why she says it’s about fiction, and so will you when you read the startling final pages of the novel. Difficult to talk about this without giving anything away, but although those pages carry an initial shock, they are just as much fiction as anything that’s gone before.
But my own opinion of what it’s about is a bit different. I think perhaps it’s something to do with the nature of heroism, or maybe better to say of goodness. Teddy becomes something of a hero in the war, though he would never think of himself in that way. But his real heroism is seen in the way he lives his everyday life. Teddy is a very ordinary man in many ways, but he is a man who tries, as that first quotation says, to be good and kind. One of the chapter headings adapts a line from Wordsworth’s famous poem Tintern Abbey: ‘His little unremembered acts of kindness and of love’. Here’s the full quotation:
…that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
Goodness is a quality that is notoriously difficult to write about, or rather to write about in a way that doesn’t make it seem either boring or unattractive. I would say Atkinson has succeeded supremely well here. This is a moving, thought-provoking, multi-layered novel which will certainly repay re-reading, and I’m very glad I had a chance to read it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins (Doubleday: London, 2015). 9780385618700, 396 pp., hardback.
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