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Casualties of War: Michele Magwood Reviews Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins
Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

“A man”, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a god in ruins.” And there can be no more ruination, more wreckage of man, surely, than war. Kate Atkinson has been preoccupied by the two world wars, noting that as a child growing up in the ’50s the recent war was never mentioned, even though it had ravaged her extended family. She came to realise that faced with the depleted, diminished aftermath of the war, people just wanted to forget it.

In a recent interview, she said, “I see writing as a form of rescue,” and in her last, monumental book, Life After Life, and now in this new novel, Atkinson rescues the wraiths of the war, reimagining lives, futures and possibilities. While it is not strictly necessary to have read Life After Life to appreciate this book – what she calls a “companion piece” rather than a sequel – it makes it enormously satisfying to revisit a family you already know, the Todds.

Life After Life centred on the character of Ursula Todd, who lives her life over and over again, Atkinson’s temporal sleight of hand that played with the nature of storytelling itself. With a twist of her pen she tumbled the shards of her kaleidoscope, the bright pieces settling into new shapes, new destinies, new history.

A God in Ruins follows the life of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, beloved by all, who survives the war and must live “in the afterward”. Teddy was a bomber pilot, gallant and glamorous, but with the heart of a poet. The scenes of air combat, while at times over-long, are gutting as Atkinson drops us into the roaring belly of the Halifax aircraft, “burning burned-out towns, bombing bombed-out cities”. The pilots were, she writes, “birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.”

Teddy is shot down again and again, but survives, until he is captured and spends the end of the war in a POW camp in Germany. “He had been reconciled to death… and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future.”

When he returns, he marries his childhood sweetheart Nancy, who had spent her war breaking codes. She carries this secrecy into her own afterward; they subside into a muted, conservative existence and have a child, Viola, who grows into a repellent harpy and in turn produces two children.

Once again Atkinson plays with time, seeding the story with glimpses of a nonagenarian Ted in a nursing home, whipping us back to his Arcadian childhood. The chapters echo with motifs: a red thread tracing a flight path in 1945 reappears as an emergency cord dangling in Ted’s retirement home; birds repeat in many forms, becoming airplanes and angels.

When he emerged, blinking, into the afterward, Teddy resolved that “he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all that he could do.” But his steadiness, his wise gentleness, is sorely tried by Viola, who is contemptuous of her father and ricochets through her own life, from fad to fad, neglecting her damaged children, until Atkinson finally affords her some redemption. In a way Viola’s life embodies the postwar history of Britain, from the risible idealism of the hippies, through Greenham Common, to a hilarious contemporary setpiece involving chav hen parties. In Viola’s good and kind daughter Bertie, Atkinson offers us hope.

In Life After Life a character says, “We must all bear witness for when we are safely in the future.” Here, in the future, Kate Atkinson bears powerful witness to the past, a passing bell for those who died as cattle. It is heartbreaking. – @michelemagwood

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