A God in Ruins is a novel about the war and about fiction; and look away now if you don’t wish to know there’s a wicked twist at the end.
Kate Atkinson MBE takes us up in the sky with Bomber Command, terrifying flights of death over Europe. And then in family saga style, asks what we did when all that awfulness was over.
At the heart of this tale is Teddy Todd – would-be poet, heroic World War 2 bomber pilot, husband, father and grandfather, trying to make his way kindly through the 20th century. And it’s not always easy.
He was a Wing Commander at the age of twenty four and so always one of the older pilots. Only ten per cent of those flying in Bomber Command at the beginning of the war were alive at the end. No wonder sex was so freely offered and enjoyed during the war. With random death so busy, no one thought much of tomorrow.
‘War is man’s greatest fall from grace,’ says Atkinson in her afterword. Though there are other falls recorded in more domestic settings.
The novel moves back and forth over sixty years from the arrival of war to the present day, a family saga, as I say, with effortless characterisation achieved by Atkinson without her appearing to try too hard. She finds people quickly and discretely.
We may move around in time, but we are always rooted in the here and now, with these characters, even in the tiniest of moments. Round a dinner table, in a care home, flying above the Ruhr, we are always absolutely there.
The author, as the god of time, exercises her powers freely. In two paragraphs, we might be taken forward fifty years to hear the story of what happened to a family heirloom. And then returned back to where we were to continue.
But in the free movement between different times arises a strong sense of our collective past; how one thing becomes another; and how one thing after another is quickly forgotten as the years pass by. No one wished to remember the war until they were a long way away from it.
There is eye-watering sadness, sharp comedy – and deep wisdom. Kate Atkinson is a dry observer of pretension and poppycock, both private and societal. Some of the transactions which take place in the family are quite as harrying as the dog fights over France.
And so to the twist. There is, what Atkinson calls, ‘a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book’ which brings a savage execution at the end, not to say a massacre. I felt it undermined some of the glory but the critics loved it. Reflecting on the ‘trickery’, (her word) Atkinson says that she wants to be free as a writer with no constraints. (And remember, this is a book about fiction and our relationship to it.)
So, yes, there’s a twist at the end of A God in Ruins which divides people. But such is her ability – some would say genius – only a fool would deny her that freedom.
She’s a top, top writer. And wise as an owl who has seen it all.
My new novel, anchored in the life of Jesus, is called ‘Gospel – Rumours of Love’ and is published on February 1st, 2021