‘When they first moved into this house there had been a lovely lilac that graced the front garden, but Teddy had clipped it down when it was in full scented flower in the first April. ‘But why?’ she said, but then saw the look in his eyes and realized it was something from the war – the great fall from grace – and he was unlikely to explain it.’
Have you ever had one of those nights when you awaken with a shudder and spend the seemingly endless minutes waiting for dawn, your mind skittering from thought to thought, a kaleidoscope of past, present and future; disappointments, worries, wishes?
Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God in Ruins’ uses such a structure to tell the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd, whose story was the basis for Atkinsons’ last novel, ‘Life After Life’. In that novel, Atkinson explored Ursula’s life by looking at the numerous roads not travelled, the possibilities which exist for a life so ordinary. We return time and again to a different choice made, a different outcome, a different life.
In this companion novel (not a sequel – you don’t need to have read ‘Life After Life’ to follow this book, although it does bring its own rewards if you have) Atkinson takes a different tack. We follow Teddy’s life from childhood to death. We meet his first love, experience his war, meet his wife, daughter, his fears, his dread…but not quite in that order. Chapters step back and forth across the years, paragraphs skip decades in the space of a few lines. We learn about death in the midst of life.
‘Not long afterwards Julia was posted to an Army ordnance base and was one of seventeen people who were killed when a bomb dump accidentally exploded. Teddy was already in the POW camp by then and didn’t find out about this accident until years later when he read about her father’s death in his own newspaper (‘Peer in sex scandal falls to death’)’
In this, and despite Atkinson’s protests against the ‘experimental fiction’ tag in the novel’s afterword, I see Atkinson’s work as a direct line from Virginia Woolf, who used time as a plaything and a tool – most obviously in ‘Orlando’ but also (and perhaps more pertinently in relation to ‘A God in Ruins’) ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ in which the eponymous heroine mulls over the past, present and future as she picks her way across London. This makes Atkinson’s novel sound a complex read, but that would be a mistake. I am not what you would call a diligent reader – I am not ashamed to call time on a novel if it doesn’t engage me or it appears too complex for its own good. In a way, Atkinson has created a DIY biography, collecting all the strands in one human’s life and leaving us, the reader, the piece it together and find our own connections and threads: to make sense of a life in much the same way as we do our own.
While Atkinson follows in the footsteps of Woolf she brings to the novel elements which I have always felt Woolf shied away from – passion,
‘…suddenly much more agitated, throwing herself around in the bed, tearing at the bedspread, her night dress, her hair, as if she was trying to rid herself of a burning demon. He added more morphine to the milk that remained in the beaker but her thrashing arms sent it flying across the room. She started screaming, an unholy noise, unstoppable, her wide-open mouth a black maw, as if she had finally become the demon that was in her brain…’
and the brutality of life, which Atkinson infuses with poetry:
‘The instructor’s entrails, still warm, were festooning the lilacs. The lilacs were in full bloom, their scent still discernible beneath the noisome stink of butchery’.
And butchery, in the form of WW2 bomber raids over Germany, forms the backbone of the novel, just as such an experience must surely become an intrinsic part of the soul of anyone, like Teddy, who took part in them. These passages are almost emersive in their power and effect: at times you can almost smell – taste – the claustrophobia, fear and physicality of these men bound together in death dealing tin cans. These passages are, naturally, returned to time and again and in a sly nod to this, Atkinson has Teddy’s novelist daughter comment
‘She night have been able to use his memories as the basis of a novel – one that everyone would respect. People always took war novels seriously’
As you can probably tell from this quote, despite bomber raids and the brutality of life making up a large part of the novel, ‘A God in Ruins’ is not a totally solemn affair. Teddy may experience the horrors of war and the heartache of the everyday, but like all lives he finds love, lust, joy, hope, silliness and all those other things which enable us to withstand our darker moments. I also like how Atkinson add sly winks to the reader: Chatting with his sister Ursula, Teddy mulls over the idea of going back in time and shooting Hitler – which Ursula actually attempted in one of her roads not travelled in ‘Life After Life’
This is a glorious spell of a novel which thrills with new tricks, beautiful prose and startling imagery and one which rewards each new reading with new connections and threads.