Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, is a saga that takes two of the main characters in her earlier work, Life After Life--Ursula and Teddy--and focuses on their lives both during and after WWII. In particular, it centers on Teddy, Ursula's brother--the heroic R.A.F. pilot who survives 70 bombing raids over Nazi Germany. The story seamlessly weaves between his harrowing experiences in the war and his later life as a civilian.

A God in Ruins is as much about England as it is about Teddy. Although not an anti-war book, Atkinson, as well as her characters, expresses moral ambivalence about the "collateral damage" wreaked upon citizens. Ursula asks Teddy whether he feels uneasy about bombing innocent civilians. His reply, at that time, reflects the certainty of a military man:

How do you define 'innocent' anyway?, Teddy rebuts...Workers in factories that are making bombs?...(Those in the Siemens factories in Berlin?--the company that supplied electrical parts to the concentration camps and 'had manufactured the ovens for the concentration camp crematoria'. And let's not forget it was the Germans who started this war.
"I rather think we started it at Versailles," Ursula said quietly.

But in later life, doubts linger:

Yet even then,...all those years later, he found that in the long dark watches of the night, plagued by insomnia, he would recite those names. Essen Bremen Wilhelmshaven Duisburg Vegesak Hamburg Saarbruken Dusseldorf Osnabruck...Some might count sheep. Teddy counted the towns and cities he had tried to destroy, that had tried to destroy him. Perhaps they had succeeded. 

Complex questions and characters abound in this thoughtful book. Nancy, a brilliant mathematician and Teddy's childhood sweetheart, gives up a promising career to become his wife. Similarly, Teddy is content as a nature writer for a small, rural press. He and Nancy find a rustic cabin to begin their companionate (if unromantic) marriage.

As Teddy ages--and he is blessed with a long life--the reader can't help but note the metaphor. His marriage to Nancy ends with her long illness, and his daughter--Viola--can only be described as a handful.

Later, in her twenties, Viola joins a commune and rebels against everything her father fought to defend. She  falls in love with a dissolute young man and becomes a neglectful mother to two children. Viola, and her children, Bertie and Sunny, are central to the plot and their lives run parallel to and intertwine with Teddy's.

A God in Ruins is considered a companion book to her earlier novel, Life After Life. The earlier book employs the artful premise of having Ursula die at the end of each chapter only to be reborn in the next. A God in Ruins, although nonlinear, is less hopeful. The characters are granted only one life--no "do-overs."  Ultimately, though, the author is not done with surprises. As The New York Times noted:

Structure, and its way of coalescing from the seemingly casual into the deliberate, has been a main attraction in other Atkinson books...As for that, Ms. Atkinson has one huge trick up her sleeve, but she saves it for the book's final moments to make it that much more devastating.

If you love character driven novels, historical or literary fiction, A God in Ruins is not to be missed.

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