A God in Ruins

  • By Kate Atkinson
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 480 pp.
  • Reviewed by Mike Maggio
  • May 21, 2015

The author explores the ravages of war and its aftermath as she follows the Todd family into the 21st century.

I’ve never been one for historical novels. While I love reading about history, I have always felt fiction and history are two separate constructs, each existing in its own right. While historians may use the stuff of fiction (character development, exposition, description) to render the past into a cogent narrative, and fiction writers may draw on historical references in their stories, the two are best left on their own.

That personal dictum has now changed upon my reading of Kate Atkinson’s masterful novel A God in Ruins.

Nominally set in World War II, the story follows the life of Teddy Todd, a child whose love for poetry and nature swiftly changes when, as a young adult, he volunteers for the war effort, becoming a fighter pilot and leading bombing sorties over Nazi Germany. (Ursula Todd, Teddy’s sister, was the protagonist of Atkinson’s prior bestseller, Life After Life.)

While he never gives up his love of language (after the war, Teddy writes for a regional newspaper on local natural phenomena), the would-be poet and one-time war hero does not achieve the dreams he envisioned, leading him, instead, to a life of mediocrity and disappointment.

In a style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, A God in Ruins hopscotches back and forth in time, spanning four generations of the Todd family from 1925 through 2012. Within this time warp, we explore the ravages of war in a sometimes surrealistic landscape, along with the conflict’s devastating aftermath on its participants and victims.

But this is not merely a war story — though war serves as a potent backdrop — for Atkinson explores the repercussions of death and destruction in a world that, like Nuremburg and Berlin, is forever changed; a world where cynicism replaces idealism; a world where heroes end up living ordinary lives, their heroism all but forgotten.

Todd eventually marries his childhood companion, Nancy, not for love, but because it is expected. Their only child, Viola, a solipsistic product of the Kibbo Kift, a scout-like organization whose emphasis on nature and spiritualism is intended to replace the militarism of traditional scouting, joins a 60s-style commune run by a vindictive leader and produces the next generation of Todds with her non-husband, who hails from a landed family whose fortune, like their lives, is in decay.

Sunny and Bertie, Viola’s offspring, are equally lost in this broken world, as their mother continually abandons them in her quest for self-fulfillment and, later, as their beloved grandfather sinks into delirium in a very-much-for-profit nursing home, while their mother not-so-secretly waits for his demise.

A God in Ruins is a story of lost heroes. A story of abandoned hope. A story in which a poet becomes a reluctant, yet effective, killer, where heroism vanishes in an effort to forget war and its consequences. A story in which it is not the idyllic, majestic Phoenix that rises from the ashes, but rather a dystopian world where idealism is replaced by misguided dreams.

Atkinson has obviously done her research. The novel (and make no mistake, it is a novel) bristles with detail, from vivid descriptions of the English countryside where Teddy Todd grows up, to the devastating scenes of destruction that are inevitable in war. And yet the research does not overburden.

Atkinson leads us into a world anchored in World Word II and, as she states in her endnotes, draws upon real-life incidents to show us that vicious episode of human history that has too often been romanticized.

And yet, as we learn in a curious catharsis, the world is not totally lost. Viola, whose inability to love is the central theme of her existence, at last finds fulfillment in a Balinese ashram where yoga and meditation are taught by none other than her aptly named son, Sunny. It is here that she reluctantly discovers her capacity to care and where we, the readers, see a sliver of hope in an otherwise discouraging world.

In her afterword, Atkinson states that A God in Ruins is “about fiction (and how we must imagine what we cannot know) and the Fall (of Man. From Grace).” In this sweeping novel, she has reconstructed a world from history and has taken us on a journey that not many of us are privileged to join. Put this one on your short list.

Mike Maggio’s novel, The Wizard and the White House, was released in November 2014.

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