‘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 wake from dreams.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson told the story of Ursula Todd who is born and dies several times in the novel each time returning to a different life. In A God in Ruins she follows the life of Teddy, Ursula’s brother who is a pilot flying bombers, Halifaxes, during WW2.
As with all of Atkinson’s novels, the narrative is chopped up into sections that are not chronological and this bothers some readers but not me. With any writer of this stature, it’s best as a reader to just calm down, allow Atkinson to take you by the hand and tell you the story. As each section of Teddy’s life is described, sometimes from the point of view of other characters (his spiky daughter Viola, his troubled grandson Sunny) we get a deeper understanding of who Teddy is and the sacrifices he made.
This novel is every bit as good as Life After Life but for different reasons. Atkinson writes movingly about old age and the gulf between the generations as well as the sacrifices made by that war generation and the lack of compassion that we later generations often display when we refuse to comprehend lives lived in very different circumstances to our own.
Teddy is the star in this novel. A kind hearted, even tempered man who does his duty and behaves loyally and bravely towards everyone with whom he comes into contact. The relationship with his daughter is painful to read and her character is dealt with in such away that you despise yet sympathise with her at the same time. A generation (like many of us now) growing up in easy affluent times, with high expectations and a deep sense of entitlement but living with a spiritual vacancy, emptiness and an inability to take joy in simple things.
Atkinson is such a brilliant writer, she never burdens the story with heavy portentous analysis or pretentious philosophizing so much beloved of writers considered to be more genuinely literary. But she does what many of them cannot, she gets you to feel what it's like to be each of her characters, if you have the patience to listen, and if you have the active brain of an active reader.
Life After Life should have won prizes. I think it won the Costa? huge shame it didn't win more. So should A God In Ruins. I hope it does. The structure of this book moves about in time but the narrative arc of the story culminates in the two climactic moments in Teddy's life and are exactly where they should be in the book. Every section, whatever time zone it is in, has built the story towards those moments.
As Atkinson explains in her Author's Note at the end 'if this is a refutation of modernism or post-modernism or whatever has superseded post-modernism, so be it.' In other words, this is how I take this, storytelling in Atkinson's world is taking you towards truth and an understanding of it, it's not meant to be a facsimile of life.
She quotes Sylvie her character, at the beginning of the book before the dedication: 'The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.' So if at times some of the characters seem stereotyped, they are meant to be, it’s the truth of the situation that matters, but also the witty way she plays with clichés and stereotypes opens up their original meaning.
I think this book is a triumph and I’m already planning to read it again. Brilliant book not to be missed.
Posted by Annette Gordon. Posted In : News