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15 May 2015

World War II novel A God in Ruins is fiction of the best kind

If Kate Atkinson's Life After Life pushed the boundaries of form, A God in Ruins is simpler - and tender.

By Erica Wagner

A God in Ruins
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 396pp, £20

Teddy and his sister Ursula are talking; it is 1943. Teddy is a wing commander, the captain of a Halifax bomber, sent out over Europe night after night to blast the Nazi war machine to smithereens. But the trouble is, it’s not just the SS and the Gestapo and the factories making tanks and gas ovens that are destroyed in these awful raids. Ursula wonders if Teddy doesn’t ever have doubts. “Sometimes,” Teddy says, “I think if only I could go back in time and shoot Hitler, or better still, kill him at birth.”

Those words will have an eerie echo for anyone who has read Atkinson’s Life After Life, published in 2013. A God in Ruins is a companion volume, rather than a sequel; you don’t need to have read the first to appreciate the second. In Life After Life, Ursula was the elusive focus of Atkinson’s looping narrative and she lived many different lives, each tiny alteration in her circumstances effecting far-reaching change. You might have called that book an “experimental novel”, if you weren’t aware of how much the author disdains the term. “Every time a writer throws themselves at the front line of a novel they are embarking on an experiment,” she chides, in an author’s note to her latest work.

On the surface this novel – which switches the focus to Teddy – appears less adventurous if only because its protagonist isn’t born and reborn. Teddy grows up with his sisters and brother in a house called Fox Corner, son of the glamorous Sylvie and steadfast Hugh, in the years after the First World War. But the novel sweeps back and forth in time, beginning in 1944 as Teddy is about to set off on another mission: this chapter is headed “The Last Flight”. Teddy dies in a bombing raid in one section of Life After Life, so the reader may suspect the fate that awaits him. But things aren’t so simple, for then we are taken through Teddy’s complicated postwar life: his reserved yet loving marriage to Nancy, his childhood sweetheart; his struggles with their daughter, Viola; Viola’s marriages and her own troubled relationships with her children.

This is a hugely impressive and immensely moving novel. Somehow it feels effortless, although clearly that is not the case. But the reader cannot fail to sense how deeply embedded in this world Atkinson already was. The shifts in time, as the book moves back and forth between decades, are enticing rather than disorienting, the sections linked by Atkinson’s technique of scattering crumbs from the future back into the past. As a boy in the 1920s, Teddy is a reluctant member of the Kibbo Kift, a dissident band of the Scout movement; but we learn that when he’s in his sixties his grandchildren will feel very differently. Viola ends up living in a commune with her children, yet Atkinson tells us that “her glory years were ahead of her”, when she would join the women at Greenham Common. These are not “spoilers” but an expression of how fully the author seems to know her characters. We are no less intrigued by their stories for seeing a shadow of their fate.

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And this is a book full of shadows. Atkinson portrays intricate family conflict, the horrors of war and the terrors of illness with a candour coloured by kindness. Just before Teddy sets off to war he sees a bunch of flowers plucked by Ursula, wilting almost as soon as they were pulled from the earth. “Nothing could be kept, he thought, everything ran through one’s fingers like sand or water. Or time. Perhaps nothing should be kept.” As the war goes on he will feel that lesson in his bones as he rains down death on Europe far below: Atkinson’s descriptions of the life of a pilot in Bomber Command are harrowing, edge-of-the-seat stuff.

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Yet there is plenty of the sharply observed humour that makes Atkinson’s work a treat. A 60-year-old Viola despondently observes a hen party shrieking in the cobbled streets of York: “They were the kind of girls who thought cupcakes were sophisticated.” But Hannah’s Horny Hens will be kind to Viola when she most needs it. “Sow and reap” is one of this book’s refrains.

The twist, when it comes, is well earned and revelatory. “The bottom line is that it’s fiction,” Atkinson reminds us after the novel ends. Fiction of the very best kind.