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Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins

Kate Atkinson’s previous book Life After Life was a quirky book about a woman called Ursula Todd. The quirkiness came from the fact that Ursula was born and then died, and then was born again and died again. This continued throughout the book, letting us see Ursula and her family from different perspectives. This book tells the story of Ursula’s younger brother, Ted, and his daughter, Viola. There is quirkiness but it only occurs at the end of the book. In her afterword, Atkinson says the motivation behind the book was to tell the tale of the crews of the Halifax bombers, which had seemed to be considered less favourably than the bigger Lancaster bombers, despite their important contribution to the Allied war effort in World War II, and also to tell more about the London Blitz. She certainly describes the Halifax bombers in some detail with a lot about what Nancy, Ted’s wife, calls the mechanics of bombing. However, though the Blitz certainly does appear, it plays a much less important role than the Halifax bombers.

The story begins at the beginning, in 1925, when Ted is a boy, and ends in 2012 shortly after he dies. However, in between, the order is certainly not chronological, as Atkinson not only jumps around chronologically, she also interjects comments about the future. For example, in the first section, Ted assumes that his future son will go to the same school he is to go and that his father and grandfather went to but Atkinson then points out that he will not have a son but only a daughter. This not the only example where we find out what will happen to a character well before s/he finds out.

Ted’s story is fairly straightforward, though, as it is not told chronologically, we only pick it up gradually. He does go to that school. He reluctantly joins his father’s bank after school but then is called up when war is declared. He becomes the pilot of a Halifax bomber, carrying out numerous sorties over Germany. After the war, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, and they have the one daughter, Viola. He tries teaching at school but hates it and gives up, to become a journalist on a local paper. Throughout the book, Ted is the Voice of Reason. He is a reasonable, decent man, a great lover of the countryside, a good husband to Nancy (though both are unfaithful during the war) and a man with a conscience, particularly about the bombing, much of which he learns about only after the war. He gets on well with virtually everyone, with only one exception, his daughter, Viola. Viola is a difficult person, both as a child and as an adult. She is never happy, does not really fit in, does badly at university, despite her love for literature, drops out and lives with a man from a well-to-do family who does a lot of drugs and does not get on with either of her two children.

Though the focus is on Ted and Viola, we meet many members of the family. There is Aunt Izzie, who uses Ted as a model to write her books about Augustus, a naughty boy, along the lines of the Richmal Crompton Just William books (which Atkinson admits in the afterword), even though Augustus is so naughty that his parents virtually disown him, while Ted is invariably well-behaved and adored by his mother. Ted mildly but only mildly resents this. Maurice, the oldest brother, was obnoxious in Life After Life and is obnoxious here but plays only a minor role, having a desk job in the war, while his two younger brothers are both on active duty. Viola’s children, initially named Sun and Moon, but changed to Sunny and Bertie (short for Roberta, her second name) are as different as the sun and moon, with Sunny as obnoxious as his mother and as lacking in a sense of responsibility as his father and Bertie as sweet as her grandfather, though with considerable issues with her mother (“Why did you have children?” Bertie asked, later in their lives. “Was it just the biological imperative to breed?” and later calls her family The family that put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional). Ted tries very hard to be a good grandfather to both.

Moral responsibility is a key issue in this book. Ted is very concerned, particularly later in life, about the bombing campaign against ordinary German citizens, particularly when he reads in books after the war about the suffering, e.g. in the fire-bombing of Hamburg. He is also very concerned about the fate of his aircrew and takes his responsibilities very seriously. He is also a nature-lover, something, as he points out, later became to be called an environmentalist, and is very keen on saving England’s green and pleasant land. Viola and Dominic (her partner) and Sunny are clearly lacking in any sense of moral responsibility whatsoever, at least for much of the book.

Surprisingly enough, the role of art plays a certain role in the book. Atkinson’s characters give varying views of what art is and what it is for. Sylvie, Ted’s mother, for example, says The purpose of Art, is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself. Aunt Izzie, however, says Art is anything created by one person and enjoyed by another, a much broader view, while Nancy saw art as therapy. Atkinson concludes with the view And when all else is gone, Art remains. As the book features two (very unsuccessful) artists and two not very good novelists, perhaps these somewhat conventional views might seem relevant. In her afterword, Atkinson claims the book is about fiction (and how we must imagine what we cannot know).

Atkinson claims two other themes – The Fall of Man (from grace) and how so many lives are damaged by the absence of the dead. Obviously, as the book is set over a period of nearly ninety years, many people die, quite a few prematurely and quite a few by violent deaths. Similarly, Dominic, Viola and Sunny can be seen to represent a stage in man where he has lost his grace and become thoroughly irresponsible, though I would certainly challenge the idea that this only occurred after World War II. Indeed, if any war can be said to show a literary falling from grace, it would be World War I rather than World War II, though obviously the nature of many of the deaths in World War II, which did not take place in combat, is a factor but not a factor Atkinson mentions much, except for the bombing of civilian by Allied planes. Ted outlives all his siblings and his wife but seems to imply that the loss of Ursula may well be his greatest loss.

While certainly not the greatest World War II novel, Atkinson’s account, which obviously deals with much more than war and its morality (or lack thereof), is very well told. Her account of the actions of the Halifax bombers and mechanics of bombing turn out to be far more interesting than I would have imagined. A multi-generation story and who influences whom and how they interrelate help make this novel a thoroughly enjoyable and a very good read, not least with Ted remaining the solid rock but with everyone around him changing, at least to some degree. And it all ends with Augustus, who is definitely not Ted.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Little, Brown and Company