Review: Atkinson’s ‘God in Ruins’ tracks an aviator’s life, real and imagined

A GOD IN RUINS. By Kate Atkinson. Little Brown. 395 pages. $28.

Kate Atkinson set “Life after Life,” her best-selling last book, in a place she calls “The Land of Begin Again” a fairy-tale England where parallel timelines and alternate realities challenge the idea of a unified life and a single personal fate. Ursula Todd Beresford, the protagonist of that novel, is born in 1910 and dies in a single breath — the cord is wrapped around her neck — because the doctor can’t make it through a snowstorm to deliver her. The next chapter starts over, and the doctor has made it to her mother’s bedside, just in time. The baby survives, but she doesn’t surpass childhood until her seventh life.

The pitfalls of childhood — drowning, influenza, falling off the roof — are meager compared to the outcomes waiting to be hatched from adult choices and chances. As the book evolves, a single event might make the difference between whether Ursula is a beaten down alcoholic office worker or whether she’s the hero who shoots Hitler and averts World War II and the Holocaust.

Atkinson calls “A God in Ruins,” her new book, a “companion piece” to “Life after Life.”

Ursula’s brother Teddy Todd, the family golden boy, is the central character. In its predecessor, Teddy, like Ursula, lives through alternate storylines. He is always the tender-hearted, nature-loving family darling who serves in the RAF during World War II; but one scenario has him dying in a fiery crash, while another allows him to survive and marry Nancy Shawcross, his neighbor and childhood sweetheart. Ursula admires Teddy for his “straightness,” so it seems fitting that he should adhere to “a past, present, and future, the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on,” as Atkinson phrases it.

The fantasy of Ursula’s life is one of eternal rescue and return. Atkinson is up to something different with Teddy: there is no rescue for him from his one life, no do-overs or zany side-trips. She invests herself in the weight and mighty — even magnificent — presence of a single life over time. Hovering in the background is always his absence, the what-if of the crash that killed him in “Life after Life.”

Teddy expects to die during the war but finds instead years stretching ahead of him: “and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future.”

The war represents freedom to Teddy, from suburbs, a banking job and the harness of marriage. He has his moment of glory in the air, with a box of medals to prove it. If “Life after Life” was fascinated with beginnings, “A God in Ruins” is committed to endings.

Teddy Todd began life as an Edwardian. Atkinson imagines him outlasting not only the war but England he fought for. Fox Corner, his family’s estate, was an “Arcadian dream,” according to his mother, Sylvie. When the war ends, Teddy takes a look at “poor ruined Europe” and knows he can never go back to the safe side after the “chasm of war.” Instead, he vows to “always try to be kind, to live a good, quiet life. Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. ... And that would be his redemption.”

Teddy’s fall into a diminished world includes a “plodding,” though loving, marriage to Nancy Shawcross, who dies of a brain tumor when their daughter, Viola, is only seven. Viola is a discordant presence who provides certain evidence that the graceful Edwardian years are over. Her children, Bertie and Sunny, need and love Teddy.

“A God in Ruins” tracks the quiet afterlife of a flying hero, on the ground but also in the memory and imagination of his survivors. Teddy Todd is forced to do personal reparations for loving what he should have loathed. Atkinson’s language is most stimulating and poetic when she sends Teddy into the air in his Halifax bomber, a machine he loves. On a deadly mission, for instance, he looks about and can see “stricken aircraft everywhere. The sky was scattered with the bright white stars of explosions.”

There are many ways to fall, and the metaphors have a way of distancing the carnage from what it is. Some planes drift to earth “like large leaves”; others plummet. Wings collapse like a “drop-leaf table.” Two planes cartwheel down to earth together, “giant pinwheels of fire.” But beauty, truth, and goodness don’t always coincide. Teddy, at Ursula’s insistence, has to admit the ugly truth — that his missions have indiscriminately targeted civilians.

In an Author’s Note, Atkinson says her novel is about “fiction (and how we must imagine what we cannot know) and the Fall (of Man. From grace).” Dramatic soaring and sinking are built into Teddy’s professional life — at least in wartime. But it is in the long devotion to ordinary kindness after the war that Atkinson allows Teddy’s life to accrue real valor.

As Ursula says near the book’s end, “I believe that we have just one life, and I believe that Teddy lived his perfectly.”

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.