There are books that get hold of you and break your heart. Maybe it is best to simply let this happen unexamined, but in the aftermath of reading Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God in Ruins’ (2015), when I finally got my equanimity back, I had to wonder how she shook my world so thoroughly.
On the surface, here we have yet another World War II novel. The hero is Teddy, the stiff-upper lip fighter pilot, the good man who lives by the ethic of kindness. We’ve met him before, not only as a trope in many World War II novels and movies, but specifically in Kate Atkinson’s earlier ‘Life After Life’ (2014), itself an extraordinary examination of war in which we follow his sister Ursula as she dies and is reborn again and again, each time round trying to improve the world.
‘A God in Ruins’ seems more straightforward structurally. We only move up and down one timeline, and that is Teddy’s. His childhood, his war, his marriage, his daughter and his grandchildren. Atkinson gets in some razor sharp observations about modern society along with the tragedy of war and its long shadow.
Her love of language is plain, and brought to the fore in many passages. There is an outright funny sequence at a marketing seminar contrasting the emptiness of what Don Watson calls weasel words, with poetry (pp. 356-358). We hear ‘standout talkability,’ ‘monetize,’ ‘brand-relevant content.’ Scary to think someone makes up these phrases. This is so not Shakespeare: Oh how full of briars is this working-day world.
Then, with her characters fully developed, her language sparkling, and the plot ticking along, Atkinson suddenly does this thing at the end, which I can’t talk about because it is a revelation that upsets everything, and something you have to discover yourself so your heart too can break for Teddy all over again.
I’ve read everything Kate Atkinson has written, since ‘Behind the Scenes of the Museum’ (1995) when it came out. Despite her early critical success, she surprised quite a few people by turning to crime. Jackson Brodie, her dishevelled detective, is worth getting to know (in the books, yet to see the television series) but it is also a joy that she has come back to the ‘Literary’ world. She is magnificent.
Of Teddy’s daughter Viola, she says, ‘And just because she could do joined-up handwriting, she discovered, didn’t mean that she could write books’ (p. 312). Luckily for us, Atkinson is not her character.
‘A God in Ruins’ can seem a deceptively easy read. Until it turns into a devastating read. I am not going to try to take the novel apart any further though. The ‘god’ of the novel may be in ruins, but sometimes it is best to simply kiss the hem of the garment as the goddess passes by.
The World War II image is from the collections of the Imperial War Museum.