Atkinson’s new novel examines brevity, moral gravitas of characters’ lives

Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” follows - and touches upon - her highly successful novel “Life After Life,”
Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” follows - and touches upon - her highly successful novel “Life After Life,” Courtesy photo

“A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown, 468 pages, $28)

Atkinson calls this novel a “companion” to her earlier “Life After Life” (2014), which presents many versions of the life of Ursula Todd. Her new novel, her 10th, follows the life of Teddy, Ursula’s brother.

Here, however, Atkinson forgoes the trickery of multiple versions of a character’s life, although she throws in some trickery at the end. I won’t give that away here.

In an author’s note, Atkinson says she “wanted to write a novel set during the Second World War” and chose to limit it to the London Blitz and the strategic bombing campaign against Germany.

But she covers a much broader period – much of the 20th century and into the 21st – as she delves into the lives of not only Teddy but his wife, Nancy, their daughter, Viola, and his grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny.

“A God in Ruins” (the title comes from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins”) moves around in time, between the 1940s, when Teddy is a bomber pilot for the Royal Air Force, and the 1950s, when he is married to Nancy, his childhood friend, and their daughter is born, and the early 1980s, when Viola and her bipolar, drug-addicted husband and their children, Sunny and Bertie, are ensconced in a rural commune, and 2012, when Teddy is in a nursing home.

Atkinson gives us a life as well as many lives, but her overriding theme is how brief each life is. As a child, Teddy reflects that “happiness, like life itself, was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, as fleeting as the bluebells in the wood.”

After Sunny is grown and becomes a Buddhist and a yoga instructor, he tells a story about the Buddha asking Shramana, How long is the human lifespan? Only when he answers, “The length of a single breath,” does the Buddha say, “You have understood the Way.”

Throughout the novel, Atkinson includes references to flight, to falling, and to birds. Certainly Teddy’s many flights in bombers, and their occasional fall from the sky, offer images that bring to mind the “fall of man,” as Emerson’s quote hints at.

One example of that fall is war, and the novel doesn’t shy from showing the horrors that war entails. At one point, Teddy reflects that “he has killed. … Many people. Innocent people. He has personally helped to ruin poor Europe.”

After the war, his reading informs him “how inaccurate their bombing had been in those earlier years.” He tells a crewmate, “We thought we were crippling their economy but a lot of the time we were killing women and children.”

Atkinson has obviously done a great deal of research, and one of the strengths of the book is the amount of detail, carefully used, that it presents.

Teddy also learns after the war that bombers had been sent deliberately to residential districts, “that people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars. They were burnt alive or suffocated, they were reduced to ash or melted fat.”

At the same time, “flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was. The only place he cared about was the inside of a Halifax [a plane], the smells of dirt and oil, of sour sweat, of rubber and metal and the tang of oxygen.”

Horrible as war was, it was his life. He thought, “If by some chance he survived the war, what on earth was he going to do? The idea of an afterward filled him with dread.”

Ursula appears in this book, and Atkinson makes several references to “Life After Life.” In one conversation, Teddy says to Ursula, “If only I could go back in time and shoot Hitler.” Ursula, in the earlier book, attempted that very thing.

Another time he reflects on how he misses her. “Out of everyone, the legions of the dead, the numberless infinities of souls who had gone before, it was the loss of Ursula that had left him with the sorest heart.”

In the end, Atkinson says in her author’s note, despite her research and drawing on real-life experiences, her novel is fiction. And it is about fiction, about life and imagination.

Reading “A God in Ruins” certainly encourages one to reflect on one’s own life and how quickly it passes. But delving into this author’s imagination and into the lives of her characters is a pleasant way to pass some hours of one’s life.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in North Newton.