In 2013’s Life After Life, Kate Atkinson introduced Ursula Todd, an Englishwoman who lives not once, but repeatedly. Over the course of various fates, Ursula comes to understand and accept her peculiar lot. One reassuring constant is Ursula’s family, particularly her younger siblings.
Taking its title from Emerson’s poem Nature,A God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s brother Teddy. A World War II fighter pilot, Teddy flew a Halifax bomber, participating in the bombing campaigns that flattened civilian Germany.
Both Life After Life and A God in Ruins feature Atkinson’s trademark bloody gore. Teddy witnesses more than his share of sickening mishaps, including the live flaying of a fellow soldier and a freak decapitation. He participates in violence of war itself, including a bombing raid so intense it causes a firestorm on the ground. The smoke drifts upward to Teddy’s cockpit, carrying the smell of burning human flesh with it.
Such graphic writing slams war’s visceral brutality home. We also realize that even the most gentle souls, men like Teddy Todd, who in boyhood hoped to write poetry, can be trained to behave viciously during wartime.
Teddy is by nature even-keeled, a quality serving him well during the war and afterward. Internalizing his guilt over bombing innocents, Teddy vows to “lead a steady, uncomplaining life.” Further, “he would try to be kind.” And he is, even when that kindness is undeserved.
Atkinson’s fans adore her wryly wicked humor, but it’s impossible to ignore the deep sadness pervading her writing. Her characters, from private investigator Jackson Brodie to Teddy Todd, are often lonely people with surprising secrets. In some ways Teddy, whose life spans the better part of the 20th century, is the saddest of all. Holding to his wartime resolutions, Teddy is unswervingly good. The rewards are scant.
Much of A God in Ruins alludes to a pre-Lapsarian world of great natural beauty and innocence. In the author’s note, Atkinson notes she was only half-aware of the bird imagery while writing, but it’s everywhere as young Teddy romps through the English countryside, trying to hide his irritation at his Aunt Izzy.
“‘The lark’s known for its song,’ he said instructively. ‘It’s beautiful.'”
At this, Izzy begins singing “Alouette”, a song about pulling feathers from a lark, adding she’s eaten larks in Italy. Her nephew shudders.
Alas, this lovely, Wordsworthian world has nowhere to go but to war. Atkinson’s research on war mechanics is evident in pages devoted to warplanes, the engines powering them, and the bombs they drop. The mortality rate for men in Bomber Command exceeded 50 percent; they were, on average, 22 years old. The planes were, by today’s standards, frighteningly archaic. It’s amazing anyone survived.
But survive Teddy does, returning home outwardly unscathed to marry Nancy Shawcross, his childhood sweetheart. The couple move to a freezing cottage in rural Yorkshire, to a marriage bound more by familiarity than romantic love. After initial trouble conceiving, Nancy gives birth to their only child, Viola.
Viola Todd is a difficult child who grows into a difficult adult. That Nancy dies young (an event divulged early on) only worsens matters. Bookish, lazy, strikingly thoughtless, Viola is roundly dislikable even after Atkinson reveals what makes her tick. By age 28, Viola has given birth to daughter Bertie and a boy called Sunny. Stoic, good-natured Bertie is more resilient than her brother, who suffers terribly from absent mothering. Both children adore their grandfather Teddy, who eventually gains custody of them from an indifferent Viola.
Some of the most disturbing scenes in A God in Ruins come courtesy of Viola. Her indifference to the five-year-old Sunny verges on the abusive. While he revs into a hunger-fueled tantrum, she sings: “La-la-la, I’m afraid I can’t hear you.”
As Teddy ages, Viola prevails upon him to leave his suburban home for a senior living complex. No matter that Teddy is in physical good health with his faculties intact. Viola hectors her father as she rummages through his home, searching for valuables. “And anyway, the war ended nearly fifty years ago. Don’t you think it’s about time you got over it? “
The senior apartment complex does not accept animals, leading Viola to remark, “Just as well that Tinker’s dead.”
Later Viola pushes Teddy into a nursing home, angrily complaining to Bertie about the costs. That she doesn’t need Teddy’s money is beside the point; she deserves a “legacy”.
Excepting Viola, the children of Atkinson’s novels are often redemptive; English Lit Crit types could say they are the innocents, leading the way back to the garden. In Case Histories, the orphaned Lily Rose and bereaved Theo find one another. One Good Turn unites orphans Joanna and Reggie. In Started Early, Took My Dog, Tracy Waterhouse, recently retired from law enforcement, “buys” four-year-old Courtney from her drug-addled mother only to become besotted with the child.
In A God in Ruins, Teddy and his granchildren find each other: “Teddy was retired now and the children filled a lot of the spaces in his life. And he filled a big space in theirs. “
Bertie and Sunny are the sole bits of happiness in a life that, if not quite one of quiet desperation being the English way (with a nod to Pink Floyd), is something painfully close to it. Teddy Todd is no fool. He realizes his affections for Nancy and Viola are dutiful. That romantic love has passed him by. That he lacked poetic ability. That bombing innocents was his one true talent, and it is a terrible thing to excel at. Later in life, Teddy reads about the war, learning even more about the role he played.
Now Teddy can only behave kindly. He never purchases German-manufactured products. He never travels outside Britain. He never tells Bertie, Sunny, or Viola the truth about what he saw, heard, and did during the war. Only the reader knows. It is painful information to carry.