- - Thursday, October 15, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A GOD IN RUINS

By Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown and Company, $28, 460 pages

In Kate Atkinson’s novel, “Life After Life,” she introduced her readers to the Todd family, a very British mix of lifestyles and characters, including eccentric Silvie, her remarkable daughter, Ursula, and her favorite child, Teddy.

“Life After Life” was about Ursula and what she endured during the London Blitz. “A God in Ruins” carries the narrative and the Todds from World War II through the present in a family no longer at peace with itself and an England that seems to be disintegrating. Teddy is the central character and the novel revolves around his life as a Halifax pilot in Bomber Command. Miss Atkinson views the second book as a companion piece rather than a sequel.

The story is not told chronologically but glides back and forth in time from Ted’s childhood to his dying days as an old man in a grim nursing home.

Teddy and his siblings grew up in Fox Corner where “real was the wood and the bluebells, the owl and the fox, a Hornsby train trundling around his bedroom floor, the smell of a cake baking in the oven. The skylark ascending on his thread of song.”

Teddy went to Oxford. Before settling down to a disliked banker’s job, “he sowed cabbage seed in Lincolnshire, spent the lambing season in Northumberland, helped bring in the wheat harvest in Lancashire, picked strawberries in Kent. He was fed by farmers’ wives at big farmhouse kitchen tables and slept in barns and sheds and dilapidated cottages as the year turned and, during the warm summer nights, in his old canvas tent, somewhat mildewed …”

Then came the war and Teddy became a bomber pilot. It was exciting, frightening, and thrilling. When the bombers took off, “[t]he chocks were removed and they edged forward to join the procession on the perimeter track, the engines throbbing and rumbling, a vibration that passed through muscle into bone and lodged in the heart and lungs. There was something magnificent about it in Teddy’s mind.”

Soon Teddy realized “that they were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.” He had been reconciled to death during the war, and then “suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future.”

But he did have a future. “Afterwards — because it turned out that there was to be an afterwards for Teddy — he resolved that he would try always to be kind … to live a good quiet life … It was the best he could do. It was all that he could do.”

He found love with Nancy, the daughter of the family living next door to Fox Corner, whom he loved, if not passionately, but well. He wrote a column on plant life for a local paper. Teddy and Nancy had a daughter, Viola, who adored her mother. After Nancy died of cancer, Viola lived with her father whom she treated with cruel disdain, explained perhaps by the fact that as a little girl, she had watched as Ted killed her beloved mother in an act of sorrowful kindness.

Viola was a Sixties hippie, married badly, and had two children whom she neglected. She eventually became a successful writer of “women’s” novels, but always “felt she had been on the outside of happiness her whole life.”

Teddy’s slow decline, his “outsider” stance in the post-war world, and the loss of the enthusiasm he once had mirror the changes in English life from the orderly pre-war days through the hectic Sixties to contemporary alienation. For Ted, duty and honor ran side by side with guilt for the destruction he caused.

“God in Ruins” is a fascinating saga, rich in character and thought. It is somewhat repetitious and the jumping between years can create difficulty in following the plot line. The numerous asides are irritating. However, Miss Atkinson is a fine writer, and her descriptions of Teddy’s bomber raids, in particular, are riveting and poetic. For example:

“The first Target Indicators dropped over the city by the Pathfinders were fountains of red and gold, showering the earth below, and they were followed by lovely green ones, so that the overall effect was of jewelled fireworks cascading in the black sky. The coloured lights were joined by the bright quick flashes of the high explosive and the larger, slower explosions of the 4,000-lb cookies, and everywhere there was the enchanting twinkling of white lights as thousands upon thousands of incendiaries rained down on the city.”

In “Life After Life,” Miss Atkinson posited “what ifs” with her characters — Ursula died at birth; Ursula lived on; Ursula killed Hitler — illustrating the concept of living life over and over “until you got it right.” She does the same with Teddy at the end of “A God in Ruins:” “Teddy sank to the silent sea-bed and joined all the tarnished treasure that lay there unseen, forty fathoms deep. He was lost forever …” But it’s too late by then; the tale is told. The existential question remains: did Teddy get it right?

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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