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"A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson

Published on Thursday, February 18, 2016

"A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson

Not a sequel, but the Todds from "Life After Life" are back.

If you read Atkinson’s “Life After Life” you were already acquainted with many of the characters in her newest novel – particularly the Todd family.  But this is not a sequel in the usual sense.  In “Life” the author employs a fascinating device whereby every incident in a character’s life can have an alternate plot and so, their lives have endless possibilities.  This is a more conventional family saga that follows four generations.  Luxuriously paced, rich in plot and setting, the novel is populated by superbly developed characters. 

The “god” in ruins is Teddy Todd, the Todd family’s golden boy, steady, dutiful, thoughtful, kind, and beloved by all, his mother’s favorite among her five children.   Teddy was raised in the English countryside where he developed his deep love of and respect for nature.  Always fascinated with airplanes, Ted finds himself piloting WWII bombers in hair-raising sorties over Germany.  He learns to become detached from the savagery of war and keeps his cool in this highly dangerous job.  For this, he is trusted and greatly admired by his crewmen.   But this experience galvanizes the characteristic Todd fatalism in Ted, and he learns to plant himself physically and mentally in the here and now, without a lot of expectation for the future.

Ted, predictably, marries his childhood friend, Nancy Shawcross, from a neighboring family whose mother embraces bohemian and utopian ideas which later play a part in the life of their daughter and her children.  Teddy loves Nancy, but there isn’t much passion in the relationship.  They settle in a remote village where Teddy writes a nature column for a local paper and Nancy teaches school.  It seems ideal for Teddy.  He can closely observe flowers and creatures and share those small joys with others. His memories of the war are vivid but mostly people just seem want to forget about the War, so he stops sharing.  The war has, in one way or another, diminished the lives of many of the characters in the story.  It has hardened them in different ways, leaving them melancholy, unhopeful, and filled with regrets.

Teddy and Nancy’s only child, Viola, turns out to be a selfish and bitter.  After college, she lives in a commune and has two children with an unstable artist from a Dickensian family.  The book, in turns follows the experiences of the Teddy’s parents and siblings, Teddy’s war, Nancy and her sisters, Viola and her train wreck of a life, and her bedraggled children. 

One of the most striking things about the book is the dichotomy between Teddy’s enormous goodness and kindness and what a sad affair his life turns out to be.  He retains his optimistic outlook and his ability to appreciate the natural world.   But he merely putters along in life and is ultimately a lonely man with nothing in store for the future except for aging and death.  To many, Teddy was once godlike, but as the title suggests, he has become “god” in ruins.  And post-War England is a bit like a fallen god itself. 

I love the way Kate Atkinson writes.  She’ll tip her hand at an outcome, and then takes her time painting in the rest of the picture with lots of detail.  So the story is never especially suspenseful – it moves along as life does – in series of vignettes played out leisurely among a changing landscape of experiences and people.                           

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