How do you reconcile the things you do during a war with how you live when it’s all over? Can you make up for what you did? This is the conflict that becomes Teddy Todd’s personal war in Kate Atkinson’s terrific book, A God in Ruins, a companion to her equally terrific book, Life After Life.
Life After Life is a “what if” story, showing the different paths and possible outcomes for Teddy’s sister, Ursula, during World War II. A God in Ruins is about Teddy and his role as an RAF pilot during its bombing campaign over Germany. You can read them independently, but I think it’s better to read Life After Life first.
Both books are ambitious reads and can’t be rushed. A God in Ruins, however, is a different kind of story, and examines Teddy’s life during and after the war. Atkinson also introduces Teddy’s wife, Nancy and their daughter, Viola and her children, Sunny and Bertie, taking the reader to the present day. As in Life After Life, this story includes a lot of time jumps and requires careful reading. But the central story revolves around one path in Teddy’s life and his role as a husband, father and grandfather.
It’s hard to explain how this story goes without spoilers, but I can tell you this: Atkinson has a beautiful writing style that creates a reading experience like no other. From the beginning, her description of the Todd family puts the reader right in the middle of their home at Fox Corner, and with the neighboring Shawcross sisters. When the war breaks out, Teddy announces he wants to fly planes, a wartime career of exceptional leadership that defines and haunts him his entire life.
The most important theme in A God in Ruins is the war and the things people must do during this time. Can you be at peace with dropping bombs? Can you make up for “the dreadful moral compromise that war imposed upon you?” Teddy deliberately chose how to live after the war – “he resolved that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all that he could do.” But these choices do not guarantee happiness.
As in Life After Life, flowers, trees and animals, especially foxes, hares, dogs and birds, play an important part in the characters’ lives and suggest a strong spiritual connection with nature, including the idea of reincarnation. These ideas tie into her characters’ doubts of faith during wartime. Ursula puts it just right when she says, “There’s a spark of the divine in the world – not God, we’re done with God, but something. Is it love? Not silly romantic love, but something more profound…?”
I loved every word of this book, but here’s what I loved best about A God in Ruins:
- Teddy’s character – especially how he quietly takes care of the people in his life. His leadership of his flight crew shows how much he cares about the people around him. But his character has this great moral dilemma – he and his crew are killing innocent people, but the distance removes them from reality. Can you blame them? They’re fighting the enemy. After the war, Teddy’s love for his grandchildren comes before everything, but Atkinson throws a curveball at Teddy’s character, something that may change the reader’s opinion..
- Sunny’s character – Atkinson reveals it bit by bit and the reader comes to understand him by the end of the story.
- Viola’s transformation – reading about things from her perspective changes everything. Saving her point of view to the end forces the reader to completely reconsider her character.
- The appearance of Ursula’s dog, “Lucky” from Life After Life. It’s great to see him in this story too!
- I like how Atkinson also shows the important role that women played during the war. Many worked as pilots transporting planes, truck drivers, translators, mathematicians, decoders and nurses.
- Atkinson shows small details about her side characters, hinting about stories and scenarios that the reader can imagine taking place in the background. This is especially true with her descriptions of Hugh and Sylvie and their marriage.
- She makes a small jab about the Eat, Pray, Love craze – enjoyed that very much!
- Her description of the moment of death – its effect on family members who are far apart, how they can sense it, on nature, on the world, and on what’s next.
A God in Ruins ends in a surprising twist. It has left me wondering, but I’m thinking that’s just what the author wanted! Have you read A God in Ruins? What did you think? Did you like the ending?
If you liked this review, click here to read my review of Life After Life.
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