My rating: 4 stars
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson is an assortment of war records (which are based on true events), family dynamics, recollections on life and death, and a proof of the power of fiction. At first, I was unsure if I was going to finish the book or not, but surprisingly both the structure of the novel and its mix of ideas end up working quite well. It features some of the characters of another of Kate Atkinson’s novels, Life after Life, which I haven’t read yet, but it is not a sequel and it says on the back that it stands on its own.
The life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot during the Second World War who had wanted to be a poet, is the backbone of the story being told. Throughout the novel, readers get to know some of the events featuring Teddy’s family members: his mother (Sylvie), his father (Hugh), his siblings, his aunt, his wife (Nancy), his daughter (Viola) and his grandchildren.
The story is not told chronologically. Time periods keep changing not only between chapters, but also within the same chapter. Every chapter is set in a specific year or date, but they don’t follow a sequential order. There are also plenty of flashbacks and flash-forwards within each chapter. Thus, it is difficult for the reader to know for certain which is the novel’s present time of narration.
During the first 70 pages or so, I wasn’t liking the book that much, since it was being quite difficult to remember the characters, their names and relationships, because of how the timeline is not chronological and the time periods keep changing. But then I became attached to the characters and wanted to know more mostly about Teddy and his wife, Nancy, whom he had been friends with since a really young age. Moreover, surprisingly, the nonlinear narrative became one of the strongest assets of the book for me, as it kept me enthralled and guessing what had happened.
As a child, Teddy didn’t like it when people killed animals. However, he had to kill people during the Second World War, which shaped his life in a way. In fact, Teddy has trouble dealing with having survived the war:
“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.”
Throughout the novel, there are vivid narrations about facts that took place while Teddy was a pilot, which were inspired by real historical events. Sometimes the descriptions of the nature and the surroundings are so beautiful that they are in complete contrast to the horrors of war.
“There were sunsets and dawns of thrilling grandeur and once, on a run to Bochum, a spectacular show that the Northern Lights put on for them – a vibrating curtain of colours draped in the sky that had left them searching for superlatives.”
A God in Ruins also raises questions on historical and social issues, from boarding schools to the need for some of the bombings that took place during the Second World War. As the book spans a long time frame, various implicit cultural considerations are made about the different decades covered.
Although I liked the historical parts of the novel, the complex relationships at its core were also quite absorbing. Be it the caring relationship between Teddy and Nancy, the complex feelings Viola shows regarding her father, or the heart-warming love Teddy shows for his grandchildren. The changes in point of view throughout the book offer readers various insights on the events of Teddy’s family life.
A God in Ruins got me quite emotional at times with the observations being made about marriage and war without feeling that the author was trying too hard. Nevertheless, there are also some funny moments, for example, about people who live in a community where they are supposed to share everything. It is a difficult book to get into, but it really deserves to be read and enjoyed until the end.