By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books, ISBN: 978-0316176507
Paperback, ©2016, 480 pages
Ex-bomber pilot Teddy, a.k.a. Edward Todd, has settled into an expected post-war role of husband and father, living out his days in small-town mediocrity with enigmatic wife Nancy, unlikeable daughter Viola, volatile grandson Sunny and pragmatic granddaughter Bertie. He is content to write for a local journal rather than seek his pre-war dream of becoming a world-renowned poet, or travel as he’d planned before enlisting with the RAF.
On the surface, Teddy is a quiet, unambitious man with strong pacifistic tendencies, and with good reason. Beneath the surface lays pent-up guilt for the hundreds—thousands—of innocents killed or maimed during his 72 bombing raids over Germany. Teddy lives by his own personal credo: Always be kind. Even when he suspects his wife is having an affair. Even when his daughter treats him like a burden and can’t wait to be rid of him. Even when those he holds dear take no interest in the one thing that ever really made him feel alive: the mechanics of bombers.
A God in Ruins is not a sequel to Life After Life, even though it explores another branch of the Todd family, most of whom we met in the first book. Teddy’s story is, rather, a companion piece and while it is not told in the same fashion as Ursula’s repeat visits to a life in this realm, chapters of Teddy’s life fall into the story in a jumbled way that at first was hard to read. However, the more I read, the faster Teddy’s hooks held my attention. Layer after layer is peeled away from Teddy’s façade to show the reader how his life came to this point. That alone would have intrigued me.
But Atkinson’s characters and their interrelationships run deep. Each and every one carries strata of cause to support the effects of their strengths as well as their flaws. Throughout the story, the author allows readers to see into the minds and thoughts of all the main characters—Teddy, certainly, but also Nancy, Viola, Sunny and Berti—so that by the end of the story we know why all of them did the things they did. Viola, in particular, presented a most unlikable character and, for me at least, never really redeemed herself. It was especially abhorrent to me the way she treated Teddy, who is the most sympathetic character of all. But when the story reveals the explosive crux behind this broken relationship, it changed everything for me. I still didn’t like Viola, but at least I understood a great deal more about her character.
But perhaps the most prevalent character in the entire story is the same as the one in LAL—World War II. Through the first part of the book, Nancy refers to “Teddy’s war” in vague comments, but Teddy’s actual experiences dribble down to the reader in small bites, enough that we know Teddy only ever really felt completely connected to his life while he was piloting a bomber. We see isolated memories of rough missions where Teddy and his crew barely made it back alive, and others where not all of them did. Teddy clearly harbored guilt over the bombing of innocents, though he carried out his duty on behalf of the Allied Forces, and is never able to understand the hostility that lingers in his countrymen and fellow soldiers long after Germany is in ruins and its despotic ruler in his grave. I related on a deep personal level with his inability to discern any reason to continue such hatred, and his horror over the enormous destruction wrought by the conflict.
While LAL carried a bigger punch with its continual restarts on Ursula’s attempt to get this life right, A God in Ruins packs just as powerful an impact on a quieter level. True to its main character, this book whispers its message, rather than swinging insight at the reader like a blunt object, as was more natural for Ursula. Atkinson’s revelations of the Todds proved for me to be a thoughtful look past the surface of what at first appeared to be the ideal family, and an advisory that no matter how hard we try, things don’t always work out the way we plan.