My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Those of us who read and loved Kate Atkinson's last book, Life After Life, have looked forward to and been curious about how she would follow it up, and maybe we worried a little bit that she wouldn't be able to again reach the high standard she had set for herself. We needn't have worried. This is a wonderful book, every bit as imaginative in its way as the hugely successful book that preceded it.
And right up front, I'll give you a piece of free advice. If you haven't read Life After Life, read it before you read this book for this is a companion piece to that book. Not a sequel as such but simply another part of the story.
In Life After Life, we met the Todd family of Fox Corner. The focus of that book was one of the Todd daughters, Ursula. Atkinson imagined various scenarios for Ursula's life. In some of those scenarios, the life was brief, tragic, and uneventful. In others, the life stretched through most of the 20th century and affected world events.
Ursula had a beloved younger brother named Edward (Teddy). A God in Ruins tells his story and, in so doing, reveals more aspects of Ursula's life, as well.
The title of the book comes from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “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.” War, says Atkinson, is humanity's great fall from grace and fall from innocence, and, make no mistake, this is in large part a novel about war and about whether a war even if engaged in for righteous purpose may, in the end, become an exercise in savagery that victimizes the very people civilization is supposed to defend.
Atkinson tells this story through the experiences of Teddy in his life as an RAF Halifax pilot. We learn of his harrowing experiences on his bombing runs over enemy territory. He served three tours of duty, some 60 missions in all, and was one of the few such pilots to survive for a life afterward. Fewer than half of them did survive.
During his bombing runs, Teddy tries not to think about the people on the ground where his bombs are falling, but he vows to himself that if he survives, he will always be kind in his afterlife. The evil that he saw and experienced in the war forged in him the will to always be a good man, and it took an inordinate amount of evil to create the Teddy who became so unstintingly generous in his later relationships.
Though we don't get serial lives for Teddy as we did for Ursula, the author does bend time by switching back and forth to different eras of his life from chapter to chapter, and so we see him at Fox Run with his family in the '20s in one chapter, and perhaps in the next chapter he's with his own family of wife Nancy and daughter Viola in the '50s or even in the 21st century when he is alone. It's a technique that works surprisingly well to give us the fullest picture of the man. We see him in his youth, as a brother and friend, and then as husband, father, and grandfather and we learn how each role had been informed and influenced by the earlier ones.
Teddy's life is not without tragedy. His beloved father dies just on the cusp of the beginning of Teddy's War and then there are all those friends and companions that he lost in the war. The love of his life, Nancy, dies a premature death, leaving him to raise daughter Viola on his own. It would have been a daunting task under the best of circumstances and Viola is definitely NOT the best of circumstances!
At the end of his long, long life, all of Teddy's loves are gone except for his two grandchildren, one of whom is half a world away, and his cold fish of a daughter who may as well be a universe away. Fortunately, his greatly loved and loving granddaughter Bertie is at his side to escort him on his final flight from his nursing home bed as, in his mind, he struggles one last time, with shells bursting all around, to keep his Halifax on a level flight.
I love the way that Atkinson tells this story in a circular, non-chronological fashion. It makes the tale more enticing, more revealing of the personalities and motivations of the characters, I think, than a straightforward chronological narrative would have. It is the art of the writer to have chosen this inventive method of story-telling. Everything is interconnected. Minor details have great import to later events. So, stay alert throughout, reader: Attention must be paid!
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