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A God in Ruins
by Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books
Reviewed by Nora Rawn
No one who read and loved Kate Atkinson's Life After Life will be able to resist picking up its companion novel upon learning that A God in Ruins delves into the life of Teddy, Ursula's younger brother. Teddy was a guiding light to his older sister and an irresistible character for the reader as well as his somewhat besotted family in Atkinson's formally inventive, entirely successful portrait of the Todd family and wartime England as seen by the constantly reborn Ursula. Her choice in the earlier book to eventually bend her multiple lives toward the execution of Hitler was informed not only by the brutality of her experiences during the Blitz but also by the repeated death of Teddy as an often ill-fated bomber captain. His experiences as a fighter provide the other side of the coin to Ursula's struggles pulling the dead and wounded out of the wreckage of London: tit for tat. Without ever denouncing Teddy or his brave compatriots, 55,000 of whom were sacrificed, Atkinson vividly shows that the effort to subdue the enemy caused unfathomable waste on each side. Teddy and his ilk were lost in the effort to inflict 500,000 deaths in Germany, many civilian; despite never seeing this part of the equation, readers of the earlier book know the scenes all too well. The understanding that each casualty in war is the loss of a beloved is one of Atkinson's best traits as a novelist, and it is in the WWII sections that the book is most vivid, both as Teddy experiences the bombing campaign in the moment and as it haunts him afterwards. These juxtaposed wartime hells between bombed and bomber inextricably links the two books, and while each can stand alone, together they resonate wonderfully.
Unfortunately, much more so than in Life after Life, the contemporary scenes of A God in Ruins strain credulity. Particularly unconvincing is the somewhat stereotypical depiction of Teddy's only daughter Viola, a cold and vapid sort of new age woman who is willing to take on any identity that best serves her purposes. She seems meant to represent the uncaring civilians who later benefit from Teddy's sacrifice without understanding its significance, but while her ingratitude is painful to see, it doesn't convincingly damn her generation. Yet if the novel's characterizations can be simplistic, it is in some ways more emotionally complicated than Life After Life despite having a more conventional structure. While it is at first a great pleasure to realize that Teddy gains the future Ursula so desired for him, the outlines of his life here are sadly deflating. The fairy-tale marriage to girl-next-door Nancy is a quiet one, lacking passion, and their only child never loves him as he deserves. Even though a beloved granddaughter somewhat makes up for this disappointment, Viola is such an unrelenting selfish figure that it is painful to watch her paint Teddy with a wholly unfair brush, even after a misinterpreted childhood experience is introduced to somewhat excuse her attitude. Whereas Ursula could escape from a misfired life on her next go-round, Teddy is stuck with this one effort--no do-overs. The thrill of rectifying past errors was part of what made Life After Life a pleasure, and this return to earth is faintly depressing. Not for us mere mortals the power and the responsibility to change history, Teddy's story seems to say; only to be kind and to tend our own garden.
Out of 10: 8.9