For which we must be thankful. A god in ruins (Transworld, 2015) is not as tricky as Life after life, mind, to which it is a kind of sequel, but it still delivers a powerful tale on its own, complete with the rich collection of nods, winks and swerves that I love about Kate Atkinson‘s writing. In the Author’s note at the end she says:
I get tired of hearing that a new novel is ‘experimental’ or it ‘reinvents the form’, as if Laurence Sterne or Gertrude Stein or indeed James Joyce never wrote a word. Every time a writer throws themselves at the first line of a novel they are embarking on an experiment. An adventure. I believe in the rich textural (and textual) interplay of plot, character, narrative, theme and image and all the other ingredients that get thrown in the pot, but I don’t believe that necessarily makes me a traditionalist (as if we’re not all in a tradition, the tradition of novel writing).
The thing is, with Kate (if I may be so bold) you get the joys of both: acutely observed storytelling of great emotional power along with some really clever, often unobtrusive, mucking about with the novel form, sparing us any of the po-faced intellectualism one might fear from such theorising. She has fun either way. ‘Not‘ – as she says (in parenthesis) just before the passage above – being ‘as post-modernly self-reverential as it sounds.’
Anyway, whereas Ursula Todd lived a stop/start (or rather start/stop) series of contingent lives in Life after life, here nice guy younger brother Teddy has just the one. In the Author’s note Atkinson explains that many of the details of his one life in A god in ruins are not consistent with what goes on in Life after life. She likes to think of it as “one of Ursula’s lives, an unwritten one. This sounds like novelist trickery, as indeed it perhaps is, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.” I second that emotion; along with the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that the title is taken from (“A man is a god in ruins“), one of the other quotes that grace the space betwixt title page and opening chapter comes from one of Atkinson’s own characters, the mother of our main man here.
Just as Ursula’s experiences in the London Blitz are the compelling core of Life after life, so Teddy’s wartime exploits flying in Bomber Command – the allies returning the compliment on Germany’s civilian population – are at the non-sequential heart of A god in ruins. This is heavy stuff, and while Teddy’s and his descendants’ postwar experiences takes up much of the book, even though we know what is going to happen eventually one is riveted, electrified, again and again, by the piecemeal episodic revelation, mission by mission, of what actually went down for him in the war. I do not evoke a couple of other classics of the Second World War lightly, but Joseph Heller achieved the same sort of effect with Snowdon’s fateful flight in Catch-22, while Atkinson skillfully avoids straying into and rehashing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five territory by ending Teddy’s war early: “He was glad he had sat out the last eighteen months of the war in a POW camp, hadn’t witnessed Bomber Command trying to remove Germany from the map of Europe.”
As I’ve suggested, A god in ruins jumps about time-wise, giving us, as well as his wartime experiences, glimpses of four generations of the Todd family, both independently and as they directly impact on Teddy’s life. So we get the background to Teddy’s marriage (girl-next-door Nancy – one of the maths gals at Bletchley Park!), how that played out, his daughter’s trajectory, his grandchildren’s coming of age, and his growing old. In so many ways a sad, sad tale of a good man living with dignity through times and events he neither chose or deserved. One pines for him, his noble travails, but there are saving graces.
“Britain’s Greatest Generation”
So here’s Teddy: “Before the war he had fancied himself as something of a poet and had a couple of poems published in obscure literary magazines …” Come the war he finds himself judged a hero, a wing commander in Bomber Command: “a leader of men, the master of his fate, the captain off his soul and of a bloody big four-engined Halifax with an unnerving tendency to swing to the right on take-off and landing.” (Ah, the delicious flavour of Kate Atkinson’s prose.) ” ‘You have a pagan soul,’ Nancy had once told him but he didn’t agree. He had the soul of a country parson who had lost his faith.” Faith? On yet another bombing raid: “That was the trouble with faith, Teddy thought, by its very nature it was impossible. He didn’t believe in anything any more. Trees, perhaps. Trees and rocks and water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer.” After the war, one of the things he does is contribute a country diary for a newspaper in Yorkshire.
Teddy is one of those men for whom the war proved to be the time in their lives they felt the most alive: the comradeship, coming through danger, a certain freedom. There’s a wonderful passage when, on leave, he and Ursula go for a walk after a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in the Albert Hall and it’s climax of The ode to joy. “Afterwards – because it turned out there was an afterwards for Teddy – he resolved that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all he could do. And it might be love after all.” And that, though “Part of him never adjusted to having a future,” is what he does. There’s a lot still to happen before of course, but his longest term future is in an old people’s home:
A woman hirpled along the corridor towards them with the aid of a walking frame. ‘Hello, coming to join us, are you?’ she said cheerfully to Teddy. It was a bit like a cult. Teddy was reminded of that television programme from the Sixties that Viola had liked to watch. The Prisoner. His heart sank. This was to be his prison, wasn’t it?
Hirpled! When Teddy comes home from the war, wife Nancy feels a lack in him. “They must have a baby, she thought. They must have a child to heal Teddy, to heal the world.” That child was Viola, and what a daughter she turned out to be.
Kate Atkinson was born in 1951. She’s one of my generation. Teddy and Nancy are our parents’ generation. Kate is also – good for her – fiercely guarded about her own life. Frustratingly, nevertheless, you’ll find very little biographical information about her on the web, save that she has been divorced twice and had a child while still at university. Oh for a ‘straight’ – as if that were possible – memoir, never mind autobiography. I say this because – disturbingly – Viola, Teddy’s daughter, the main representative of my (and Kate’s) generation in A god in ruins, is a self-centred monster. (And she subsequently becomes a successful novelist too, but later for that.) The scorn is palpable, sour, vicious. The next couple of paragraphs may on the surface appear to be full of clichés, but reading A god in ruins it doesn’t feel like that. At the very least she has known people like this.
For reasons I’ll not go into here, though it is a compelling sub-strand of A god in ruins, Teddy becomes a single father; “He loved Viola as only a parent can love a child, but it was hard work.” Empty nester he was not: “She had spent her sulking teenage years champing on the bit to escape its confines (‘dull’, ‘conventional’, ‘little boxes’ and so on). When she had finally left to go to university it had felt as if a great darkness had left the house.” At uni she shacks up with Dominic, the estranged druggy scion of a wealthy family, a wannabe artist; when Teddy meets him and asks him what the problem is with his family, the response is (I report with some pain), “ ‘Oh, you know. The usual – drugs, art, politics. They think I’m a waster, I think they’re fascists.’ ” (Though, to be fair, his mother is a vile creature too).
” ‘We were children of the sixties,’ Viola liked to say in later years, as if that in itself made her interesting.” Ouch. They have two children: a boy named Sun and a girl named Moon. Teddy visits them in a squat in London: ” ‘So this is a “squat”, eh?’ he says as they squeezed their way past bicycles, mostly broken, and cardboard boxes in the hallway. (‘Oh I was a radical, an anarchist even,’ Viola declared in later years. ‘Lived in a squat in London – exciting times.’ when in fact she was cold and miserable and lonely a lot of the time, not to mention being paralysed by motherhood.)” They move to a rural commune that Teddy has to rescue her and the kids from: “ ‘I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight.’ the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)” (She likes a good set of brackets, does Kate). (I do too). Viola has a stint at Greenham Common too. In Viola’s final fling before marrying again (a rich man this time) and quickly divorcing big, by which time the kids are living with Teddy, she’s a member of a “women’s soul drumming group in Leeds, where she studied for a part-time MA in women’s studies on the topic of ‘post counter-culture feminism’. The north in the eighties was a hotbed of revolt.” Ouch again.
Talking to Bertie, the daughter previously known as Moon, years later, Viola asks, “Was I really such a terrible mother?” only to be met with, “Why the past tense?” Bertie (from Roberta, her middle name; she soon dropped Moon) is a bright shining star, commenting on her parent in parenthesis:
‘What about me? Am I included in that?’ Viola said in that faux-chirpy way that she had when she was trying to pretend they were all one happy family. (‘The family that put the “fun” in dysfunctional,’ Bertie said).
‘Of course you are,’ Teddy said.
So Viola writes a novel:
- He father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. That was a nice phrase. She tucked that away for later use as well. She was writing a novel. It was about a young girl, brilliant and precocious, and her troubled relationship with her single-parent father. Like all writing, it was a secretive act. An unspeakable practice. Viola sensed there was a better person inside her than the one who wanted to punish the world for its bad behaviour all the time (when her own was so reproachable). Perhaps writing would be a way of letting that person out into the daylight. (p132)
- Sparrows at Dawn [by Viola Romaine] was a solid, tangible item in the phenomenal world rather than a jumble of ideas in Viola’s head. (What next? Bertie said to Teddy. ‘Badgers for breakfast? Rabbits at Bedtime?’). (p312)
- Her first novel, Sparrows at Dawn, (what a terrible title), had been about a ‘clever’ (or annoyingly arrogant) young girl being brought up by her father. It was clearly meant to be autobiographical, a message of some sort to him from Viola. The girl was relentlessly badly done by and the father was a doltish martinet. (p172)
It turns into a steady job, a career even. “That was where the best of her was to be found, in her books. (Almost as good as Jodi Picoult,’ Mumsnet.)” Ouch, ouch. The writing life, then. “A whole life could be contained in a dinner-service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away.)” Unlike Kate, as I’ve already quoted, Viola uses edited slices of her old life for PR. How much of Kate, though, is there in, “Literary festivals, bookshops, interviews, online chats, you were just filling up other people’s empty spaces really. But they were filling up your empty spaces too.“
And in the end …
Don’t worry, I’m giving nothing away. A god in ruins is a great novel. I’ve got a bit carried away here wondering just how much of herself the author has put in there, and worrying how much of an allegory of the generations is intended (and how maybe we don’t measure up in a number of ways … but surely our idealism must have counted for something). There is so much else going on in the book, stuff I’ve not got near mentioning. Thoughtful, provocative, energetic and enervating, it’s not so much a moral tale as a long conversation about morality, about living a good life as opposed to ‘the good life’. The old cliché is that things are never black or white, but, ignoring the ‘grey’ word, Kate Atkinson is working with a full paintbox.
Did I say how much I love Kate Atkinson‘s writing? How about this?
Later, much later, after the war, when all the history books and memoirs and biographies started to come out and people stopped wanting to forget the war and started wanting to remember it again …
Here’s Bertie again. Wouldn’t it be great if she turned up in the next (oh please let there be another) Jackson Brodie novel?
[Teddy] felt similarly disappointed when Bertie took a job in advertising, which as far as he could tell was just encouraging people to spend money they didn’t have on things they didn’t need. (‘It is,’ Bertie agreed.)
And of course there has to be mention of Emily Dickinson (an Atkinson signature), Teddy to monosyllabic teen proto-goth Sun:
‘ “Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, sleep the meek members of the Resurrection, rafter of satin and roof of stone.” Emily Dickinson. It was your mother, funnily enough, who introduced me to her. She was a poet,’ he added when Sunny looked puzzled, as if he was mentally riffling through a list of Viola’s acquaintances to find an Emily Dickinson. ‘Dead. American,’ Teddy added. ‘Quite morbid, you might like her. “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” ‘ Sunny perked up.
You don’t have to have read Life after life to get an awful lot out of A god in ruins, though they do, as suggested earlier, make a fine pair. But there’s a wonderful appendix in A god in ruins of an excerpt from one of the series of children’s books that saved Teddy’s Aunt Izzy’s bacon, The adventures of Augustus. To his great annoyance and embarrassment, Izzy always said it was Teddy’s exploits as a young boy that had been her inspiration. If you haven’t read Life after life yet , Izzy is worth spending time with, and, especially, Ursula too.