Before I read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, I was careful to avoid all but the briefest of summaries and reviews. Had I known anything about it, I might not have been so surprised when the narration jumped from present to past to future and back again, sometimes all within the same paragraph. Once I got my bearings, however, I couldn’t put the book down. A God in Ruins isn’t a page-turner necessarily, though there are a few mysteries hanging over the story until the end. I found myself sneaking chapters in the middle of the day because of the characters and the language itself. While I digested my own thoughts after finishing the novel, I finally read the reviews I’d been avoiding. Of everything I read, the one line that I wished I had come up with on my own came from the Kirkus review: “a humane vision of people in all their complicated splendor.” Ultimately, this is a book about the beauty and sadness of the characters and their lives.
The story follows Teddy Fox and those closest to him, from his childhood through his time as bomber pilot in WWII through the last days of his life. Despite all of the beautiful writing, I would not have enjoyed the book if I fallen in love with Teddy almost immediately. He was a gentle child with a fondness for poetry, birds, and wildflowers. Despite the brutal experience of the war, he holds on to much of that gentleness. That is not to say that Teddy is overly soft and expressive in his relationships; far from in, in fact. Quite a bit of the storyline revolves around the things that are unsaid in a family.
As the story circles back and forth through time and characters’ view points, we understand details better that were first introduced chapters before. While Atkinson does not excuse some of her more unlikable characters completely, seeing the novel’s action through more than one view does soften their unappealing traits somewhat. I had little patience for Teddy’s daughter Viola, but I also really empathized with her when she considered leaving the commune where she was living with her boyfriend Dominic and their children and approaching Dominic’s titled (but fascist) family for support. “She didn’t mind if they were fascists, she really didn’t. Not as long as they had central heating and tumble dryers and white bread instead of rye sourdough and soft mattresses instead of futons on the floor.”
The book finally got to me about 3/4 through when Nancy, who knows she is dying, considers whether cremation or burial would be more unsettling for young Viola. “To be thinking of such things, to feel obliged to think of such things, while lying with one’s arms around one’s child, Anne of Green Gables open on the bed spread, Viola’s glass of milk half-drunk on the bedside table…In the past few weeks, they had also read together The Secret Garden and Heidi. No coincidence that they were all tales about orphans. After Anne, if there was time, Nancy planned to move on to Little Women. Not orphans, it was true, but strong, resourceful young women.” I was listening to this part of the book while on a run. I ended up stopping altogether to have myself a little cry.
Compared to Life After Life, A God in Ruins is slower and more contemplative. There are multiple quotes from poems that are either lovely or cumbersome, depending on your view of the poetry. The title itself comes from the line from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” This slower pacing might have annoyed me with another book (or frankly, if I’d read it at another time), but I was in no rush to reach the end. I absolutely intend to read something else by Kate Atkinson, but not yet. I want to savor this one first.
By way of warning: There is a fair amount of profanity in the wartime chapters and the chapters about Viola as an adult. Other than that, Atkinson handles the potentially heavy topics of life and war honestly but without torrid detail.
I would recommend this to: a reader who has the time and desire to appreciate the pace of the book, but who wants more from literary fiction than just pretty sentences.