There was a handwritten sign attached to the shelf that said, ‘Please dear friend, leave these books in the condition that you found them’, which was ridiculous as 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.
In Life After Life, Ursula’s life was changed every time it reached an end, it was rewritten anew. At first glance, there are no such linguistic trickeries in A God in Ruins, although Atkinson returns us to similar territory.
A God in Ruins is the story of Teddy, Ursula’s much-loved younger brother. Although, it’s more than Teddy’s story, it’s also the story of those around him – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he serves alongside in the RAF.
The structure of the novel moves backwards and forwards in time, so begins with a short chapter just before Teddy’s last flight as an RAF pilot and then swiftly returns to Fox Cottage in 1925 and a visit from Izzie. She quizzes Teddy on a walk along the lane from the house to the railway station. Partly, it later becomes apparent so she can write a series of books based on him, The Adventures of Augustus, Augustus being the name of the second of her fiancés to die in the First World War.
A few years later she discovered that fiction could be both a means of resurrection and of preservation. ‘When all else has gone, art remains,’ she said to Sylvie during the next war. ‘The Adventures of Augustus is art?’ Sylvie said, raising an elitist eyebrow…Izzie’s definition of art was broader than Sylvie’s definition, of course. ‘Art is anything created by one person and enjoyed by another.’
By chapter three, we’re in 1980 and Teddy and Nancy’s daughter, Viola, is a grown woman with children of her own. Viola’s quite a creation:
She was twenty-eight but already jaded. Twenty-eight seemed a particularly unsatisfactory age. She was no longer young and yet no one ever seemed to take her seriously as an adult. People still told what to do all the time, it was infuriating. Her only power seemed to be over her own children and even that was limited by endless negotiation.
Viola’s pretty vile: she consistently rails against her father, unable to forgive him for her mother’s dying when she was young. ‘She felt as if she had been on the outside of happiness her whole life.’ She doesn’t seem to know how to show her children affection and, in probably the best chapter in the book, she sends Sunny to live with his father’s family, apparently unaware of either their financial circumstances or their ability to demonstrate love to children either.
Interestingly though, Atkinson uses Viola as the moral compass of the novel; it’s Viola who challenges her father over the legitimacy of war and his role in it:
She’d gone to a Quaker school, for heaven’s sake, and had taken part in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in the course of which she had tried hard to get arrested. Her glory years were still ahead of her – Greenham, Upper Heyford – but she had long been treading the path of righteous indignation. Her father had flown planes, dropped bombs on people. He’d probably been responsible for the firebombing of Dresden – Slaughterhouse-Five had been on her syllabus at university. (‘It was only the Lancasters who bombed Dresden,’ Teddy said. ‘So? So? His daughter said. ‘You think that absolves you?’ ‘I’m not asking for absolution,’ Teddy said.) War was evil, Viola thought…
Teddy’s decision to join the war effort might have surprised Viola, had she asked him why or, indeed, if she’d asked him about his experience and his own concerns.
The chapters set in the war, as Teddy flies a Halifax bomber over Germany with a fairly consistent crew of men are superb pieces of writing. Atkinson’s research shows in the details of the rituals, the descriptions of the planes, the behaviour of the men (and the occasional woman: there’s a wonderful scene where Nancy’s sister, Gertie, shows up) where it is used to great effect.
What impressed me most about this book though was the structure; Atkinson confidently moves through time – sometimes between decades – in adjoining paragraphs. The novel as a whole is structured in the same way, moving in a non-chronological order through Teddy’s timeline. Atkinson creates a jigsaw puzzle of his life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct. She also writes every chapter (bar possibly the first and the last) so they work as stand alone short stories. It’s an impressive feat.
Atkinson also does something quite shocking towards the end of the novel – don’t worry, I’ll do this without spoilers but I think it would be remiss of me not to mention it at all. Atkinson begins to break down the fourth wall as Viola, now in her 60s, starts to consider how she’s lived her life and begins to regret some of her behaviour. At this point, the narrator comments on some of Viola’s thoughts. But by the end of the book, Atkinson’s not removed a brick or two from the fourth wall, she’s sent it crashing down. It’s an interesting piece of writing and one that I think will divide readers.
One of the reasons Atkinson mention as a reason for this in her ‘Author’s Note’ is that the book is about fiction – Izzie writes the Augustus stories; Viola becomes a writer later on; each character has their own core story; each chapter is a short story in its own right. It’s also a novel about war and the deaths of so many – not just in the Second World War, but in many other conflicts throughout the world. Atkinson considers the extinguishing of each of those lives alongside the deaths of the characters in the novel and questions how many other lives were lost because they were never allowed to exist at all; they are figments of someone’s imagination as Teddy is a figment of hers.
A God in Ruins is a stunning book: the structure’s experimental and clever; the characters are fully developed; the prose is sharp and often soars. Atkinson’s a writer at the top of her game and I think people, by which I mean literary prize judges, underestimate her skill as a writer. I suspect she’s often placed under that insipid category of ‘women’s fiction’ (whatever that’s supposed to be) and dismissed. It would be nice to see some recognition from the Booker Prize, for example, for A God in Ruins but I won’t hold my breath. Her fans, however, who I know are legion and loyal, will adore this book and quite rightly too.
Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.