Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge
While Life After Life followed Ursula Todd on her repeated attempts to survive first her own birth, then her childhood and finally the Second World War, to also bring her family through intact, A God In Ruins looks at younger brother Teddy’s experience as a bomber pilot in the same war. It considers the effect conflict has on those participating in war, both immediately and long term, and the ongoing effect paid forward onto their descendants.
With Life After Life, I admired the creativity but didn’t enjoy the story much. With A God In Ruins, I enjoyed the story but didn’t admire the creativity much. A God In Ruins is a pleasant read that didn’t ask too much of me as a reader. It skipped neatly from discoveries among older Teddy’s possessions and conversations between Teddy and his daughter and grandson to memories of younger Teddy’s life. I enjoyed the plotting of the book, its non-linear trajectory, and its sense of familiarity.
After only one chapter, I liked A God In Ruins better than Life After Life. Life After Life took string theory as its starting point for the characters’ relationship to time. A God In Ruins was more straightforward in its time travelling, using memory and flashback triggered by moments in the present to move the story back and forth. As well as liking this classic narrative style, I thought Teddy as a third party narrator was a more pleasant character than Ursula. There was more warmth in Atkinson’s descriptions in this book, perhaps because she wasn’t concentrating on as complicated a story arc, perhaps because she was back in her comfort zone. The characters, although the same, felt more rounded this time around and it was interesting to have Teddy’s perspective on the people from the first book. His mother and Aunt Izzie were more likeable, with more explanation of what was behind their attitudes and actions than was given in the first book.
I appreciated finding out a bit more about some of the more throw away incidents from Ursula’s repeating narrative. Atkinson must have put a lot of work into developing back stories for the characters, including things that she needed to know about them in order to describe them in the first book, but which didn’t fit the narrative structure of the first book. I liked that she turned them into a companion work. I also enjoyed the knowledge I had from Ursula’s narrative that Teddy wasn’t privy to, so when he was puzzled about someone’s behaviour, I knew what was going on.
The throwing forward of Teddy’s family, into the late 20th century, with the introduction of new characters, and the examination of the differences that exist between every generation, was something else that engaged me with the book more. I particularly liked the motif of things said and done by people in this family setting off memories and flashbacks for Teddy. Through this Atkinson revealed more about Teddy’s relationship with childhood sweetheart Nancy, and the effect the war had on both of them.
The main focus of this aspect of the story was on Teddy’s selfish daughter Viola and her damaged but boring son Sonny, with occasional glimpses of Viola’s daughter Bertie. The relationship between Teddy and Viola was an everyday tale of parent and child not understanding each other because of clashes in personality, and an event in the past simmering under the surface. I found the feckless upper class artist that Viola had her children by and his shabby genteel bullying parents tediously clichéd. I wished that Sonny’s woes had made me care more, but he came across as someone unable and unwilling to help himself. Atkinson didn’t give me enough to feel sympathy for his plight. Hovering at the edges, making occasional interjections, was Bertie. I wish there had been more Bertie.
About 100 pages from the end, mired in Viola’s story that only cemented her awfulness and again failed to elicit any sympathy, I’d had enough. I wanted it over. Aspects of Viola’s story made me think I was possibly reading about Atkinson, and I started to not like her.
I found the scenes in Teddy’s care home too close to my reality with my mum. That was another reason I wanted the book to end. And close to the end, a typo caused me to doubt all of the historical facts that had informed what went before. I’d thought Atkinson had done well with her research, skilfully weaving facts about aircraft, bombing raids, government secrecy and the like into the fictional narrative. On page 476, Teddy visits the pigeon loft behind his crew’s “Nissan” hut. Except it should be a Nissen hut, named for its inventor Major Peter Nissen, who invented it in World War One. Nissan is a Japanese company only in existence since the 1930s. Another “Nissan” hut appears on page 480. Perhaps Atkinson got it right in her manuscript. Perhaps the error in the printed book was down to the ignorance of an editor. Whichever, it really annoyed me, and pulled me from my immersion in Teddy’s story with a jolt.
The best bits of the book were when we shared the ride with Teddy and his crew on board a variety of Halifax bombers. Atkinson got the descriptions just right – the sense of noisiness and weight, the coldness, the separation, the tension of flying and not knowing whether the engines would hold, or whether a fighter plane would strafe you with bullets, the responsibility, the camaraderie, the superstition. Those were the passages I felt most immersed in. I could hear the engines, I could feel gravity’s pull as Teddy tried to make the plane climb.