Book Review: A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson)
This book starts you thinking. We follow the life of Ted; hero of the Second World War, father, grandfather. If you read Kate’s previous novel, Life After Life, you will recognise Ted’s sister Ursula. Having survived the war as a pilot, flying many bombing raids over Germany, he reached old age and missed his sister terribly. After he married his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, we share with Ted the difficulties of maintaining relationships with one’s children. Viola, his daughter, was particularly difficult.
If you are familiar with the brilliant novel ‘Life After Life’, you will see that ‘God in Ruins’ isn’t a fantasy novel but Ted constantly thinks about the choices he has made, or rather the limited options life has thrown at him.
On every bombing raid he thought that it would be his last. Of the pilots who flew at the start of the war only 10% survived to the end. Ted always remembered the many statistics passed to him via his sister from the ‘girl from the Ministry’. As the skipper of a Halifax bomber, he never passed those statistics onto his men. They loved him and depended on him for their very survival.
The novel is funny, clever, gripping, tragic and sometimes heartbreaking. I was particularly taken by the chapter entitled ‘The Courage of the Small Hours (1982)’. After the death of his wife Nancy, Ted agreed to send his grandson (Sunny) to stay with his other grandparents. They were so cruel that they treated him worse than the dogs. The experience had a lasting effect on Sunny, including witnessing the death of Dominic, his father.
Kate Atkinson starts the novel near the end of the war, then back to Ted’s youth, and the timeline moves backwards and forwards. Unlike Ursula in ‘Life After Life’, Ted only has one life, but by moving forwards to his later years before describing his ‘last flight’ we can see the man he became as we live through his wartime experiences with him. Shaped by war, he took with him to the grave the comradeship, affection and loyalty of the men who served with him.