This companion novel focuses on Teddy Todd, Ursula’s favourite brother from Life After Life. The reader is given vignettes from his childhood, his wartime experiences as a fighter pilot, his post-war years when he lives the quiet life of an English gentleman, and his old age. We are also given glimpses into the lives of Nancy, his wife; Viola, his daughter; and Bertie and Sunny, his grandchildren.
Some people might object to the lack of chronology because the narrative moves back and forth through time, often in the same paragraph. I liked this time shifting; it is done seamlessly and is a reminder of the connection of the past and the future with the present. The omniscient narrator often steps in and reveals what will happen in the future. Objects - like a silver hare pendant – reappear, and events are seen from the perspective of several characters. This technique certainly adds depth.
Teddy is the favourite sibling of his sister Ursula and it is easy to understand why. He is such a decent, dutiful, and selfless person. Teddy vows during the war that if he survived, “he would always try to be kind, to live a good quiet life. Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. Quietly.” And that is exactly what he does. True to his scouting code, he performs “the most laborious and humble offices with cheerfulness and grace.” Viola at one point discusses her father’s “stoicism . . . cheerful frugality . . . and his persistent patience.” His other outstanding trait is his love of nature; he finds beauty in all of the natural world, even in a rodent like the water vole.
The war is the pivotal event in the book: “The war had been a great chasm and there could be no going back to the other side, to the lives they had before, to the people they were before. It was as true for them as it was for the whole of poor, ruined Europe.” Obviously, death is ever present. The phrase, “The dead were legion” is used at least a half dozen times, and the numbers of dead are even summarized at the end: “Fifty-five thousand, five hundred and seventy-three dead from Bomber Command. Seven million German dead, including the five hundred thousand killed by the Allied bombing campaign. The sixty million dead overall of the Second World War, including eleven million murdered in the Holocaust.”
Teddy certainly did not expect to survive the war. He compares plane crews to birds: “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.” This metaphor adds poignancy to Teddy’s comment about “All the birds who were never born, all the songs that were never sung and so can only exist in the imagination.” It is not surprising that “He had been reconciled to death during the war . . . [so] part of him never adjusted to having a future.” The war is something that affects him deeply; he is a god in ruins who “had believed once that he would be formed by the architecture of war, but now, he realized, he had been erased by it.”
There is a shocking twist at the end of the novel. It was certainly not one I expected, but it had me saying, “But, of course!” In the Author’s Note, Atkinson says that this twist is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.” It will certainly have the reader looking back at the novel from an entirely different perspective; the quotes I included in the previous two paragraphs, for example, take on an entirely new meaning. The epigraphs also take on new meaning, especially the statement that “The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.”
As a former English teacher, I loved the many allusions to poetry. Bertie walks along the Thames and quotes lines from Spenser’s “Prothalamion” about “the shoare of silver streaming Themmes” and then there’s a wonderful line: “Spenser handed over to Wordsworth who met her at Westminster Bridge.” Bertie admits “London really was all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” Not everyone will recognize the line from Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” but those who do will appreciate Atkinson’s style even more. One page has references to Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Emily Dickinson, and William Shakespeare.
The one weakness for me was the portrayal of Viola. She is unlikeable as a daughter, wife and mother. A tragic event from her youth obviously has affected her relationship with her father, but since the reader understands that event from Teddy’s perspective, it is Teddy who receives more sympathy. As an adult, she should certainly have understood what happened. And her behaviour towards her children, especially Sunny, is unforgiveable. She is the opposite of her father; she puts her own desires above the needs of her children, and her attempts at redemption come too late. I have to admit, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter entitled “Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace” in which Viola is expertly skewered!
A God in Ruins recently won the 2016 Costa Book Award in which the judges spoke of it as an utterly magnificent book. And I agree!