A God in Ruins is in some ways a sequel to Life After Life, which I reviewed here:
Whilst Life after Life tells the story of Ursula, who in sequential episodes begins her life over and over again after a series of deaths from various causes, A God in Ruins is the story of her brother Ted, a bomber pilot in WW2.
Ursula does pop into this story, as do their various siblings and neighbours. Also involved are Ted’s daughter Viola, and her children Sunny and Bertie. It touches on much of the twentieth century, looking at Viola’s life as a failed hippy and celebrity author, and at her husband the drug addled scion of an outdated noble family. There is much about Ted’s marriage to his childhood sweetheart too. Though her role as a codebreaker at Bletchley in WW2 is referred to only obliquely, their marriage is at the centre of this book.
A God in Ruins is a series of flashbacks or reminiscences focusing on the main characters – Ted and his family. It is set at the end of Ted’s life, and there is a sense of defeated energy throughout the novel. Ted’s character was made in that period when Britishness required a stiff upper lip and the extinction of self. Ted gardens, and writes nature notes for a local newspaper, but after his war experiences he does little to excite – he’s had enough excitement by then. His marriage is a fairly low key affair – he marries his childhood sweetheart, but there’s no real romance left in him and this is not a very exciting or passionate marriage.
Ted’s relationship with his daughter Viola is not too good. She tidies him away to an old people’s home. Her own relationships with her children are also quite poor. She was always a selfish child, and Ted acts responsibly in taking control of their lives as much as he can.
Kate Atkinson appears to have carried out a lot of research into Bomber Command’s campaign against Germany before writing this book. There is a long bibliography. She tells the story of Ted’s life in the war, following him on missions across Germany and introducing us to his crew and wartime companions. There are hints that Ted’s life could have followed a more romantic route in the occasional sexual encounter he experiences during this time, but perhaps the predominant consequence of his life as the pilot of a bomber was the closing down of his emotions. How else could he bomb Germany night after night in a series of raids that Atkinson suggests were not really morally justifiable? In any case Ted certainly remembers the faceless deaths, and they do impinge on his life and conscience.
I have read a lot of Atkinson’s novels, and I think she’s a very talented writer. She writes with imagination and focuses on the development of character and setting rather than plot. A God in Ruins, despite being the Costa Novel Award winner in 2015 didn’t interest me as much as her other work. Perhaps that’s because the character of Ted himself is fairly depressing – closed, pessimistic really, at the fag end of life and managing as responsibly as he can the difficulties fate has dealt him. I always tell people that just because you don’t like the main character, it doesn’t mean you can’t like the book. In this case it’s not that I dislike Ted, it’s just that I didn’t really find him an entertaining character.