When you spend your formative years fighting a battle you’re sure you will lose, and then unexpectedly coming through from it, that battle is what’s going to form the basis of your life story, be it illness, over-coming obstacles or an actual war. Then, there are all sorts of linchpins in life, things that you may recognise as life-altering at the time, like the decision to marry or to leave a job to pursue a dream, and there are others that only in retrospect are revealed to have changed your life and affected the lives of others around you. A God in Ruins follows the life of Teddy Todd from birth through to death and the battles in-between, and like its companion novel Life After Life, author Kate Atkinson continues to deftly weave the story from one point in time to another and back again.
People who read regularly likely know the satisfied feeling of being left reeling from a piece of writing. Life After Life was one of those books for me; the skill Atkinson displayed in its complex structure impressed me, and the sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes overwhelmingly hopeful interweaving stories stayed with me. When it was announced that the author’s next book would follow the brother of Ursula Todd, Life After Life’s protagonist, it was with a frisson of impatient anticipation that I awaited its publication.
The connection I made with Life After Life probably meant that any follow up would be extremely difficult to measure up. The growth of Teddy’s character is consistent and his interactions with everyone from his favourite sister (Ursula, of course) through to his eventual grandchildren rings true. The story runs a linear path that’s constantly cut through with jumps to a memory from the past or an anecdote from his future which is innovative, sometimes a little confusing but mostly highly effective. But Teddy’s humdrum post-war existence and series of disappointments taken on the chin can’t compete as a narrative with the pure imagination and high stakes of Ursula’s multiple stories.
Although of course when all is taken into consideration that’s the entire point. The story feels real, like the story of too many men returned from the horrors of war determined to live a good, quiet, simple life. Atkinson set out to write a book about war, and has accomplished that by examining the life of a man before, during and after, and how this momentous experience will not only leave physical and emotional scars that could never heal but in some cases experiences and a camaraderie that will never again be lived up to.
There’s a theory in aesthetic theory put forward by the philosopher Walter Benjamin that each (visual) art work’s value is decreased with each copy – for instance the original Van Gogh’s Starry Night is its purest form, and while prints and copies are made of it, you can view the image on the internet and in books, there is no way of getting its true value except to see it in person, straight from the artist’s mind to the paintbrush and onto the canvas. The same can’t exactly be said for literary works – “no book could ever be left in the condition that you found it in because it was changed every time it was read by someone”. So says Teddy’s grown up daughter Viola, on happening upon a hostel bookshelf’s sign announcing to leave the books in the condition that you found them. It’s true, a favourite book will leave all the residue of wear and tear, a tear dropped in sorrow here, a tea stain there, but one of the extraordinary things about reading a work of fiction is your individual take on it – I imagined what a person with Viola’s selfish, irresponsible, hard-done-by nature would make of her traits, if they would sympathise more with her than I did on the revelation of why she feels and acts the way she does. The characters are beautifully drawn and painfully believable, and the eventual climax is shocking and a little bit devastating, lending itself to numerous re-thinks long after you’ve put the book down for the last time.
Sometimes bleak and heart-breaking, often wryly funny and playfully antagonistic, the characters recognisable in ourselves and others around us make the book what it is, which is more than simply a war story. Atkinson has once again defied the genre, and produced another spellbinding work of chilling ingenuity.
– Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on July 1st 2015