I took a chair to the beach to read the last quarter of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins because it demanded to be finished. While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a beach read, Atkinson proves once again that she is a master at juggling timelines and creating compelling situations and complex characters. The book is a companion and not a sequel to her brilliant 2013 novel, Life after Life. This one focuses on Teddy, the brother of Ursula who is the protagonist of the earlier book.
Teddy is an RAF warrior, flying more than 70 bombing missions during WWII. A former banker who is relieved to be released from his mundane job, the airways are where Teddy feels most alive. Re-upping for tours and defying odds, he appears to be immortal. In Ursula’s story, he pushes his luck one time too many and ends his wartime career in the North Sea, but in this story, Teddy lives on into advanced old age.
Teddy realizes quite soon after his return to civilian life that nothing is quite as meaningful as his high octane life in the air. He settles into a predictable life, a lackluster job in journalism and a good enough marriage to his childhood best friend, literally the girl next door. When his wife dies, he is left to raise a shockingly contrary daughter. Teddy doesn’t deserve to be reviled by his daughter, but is unable to move her. His grandchildren love him and offer some comfort, but overall, Teddy is a man who drifts through the rest of his life. He is heart-breakingly noble and ineffectual. One gets the sense that this coda to his glorious military career should not have been his fate. Ted’s daughter, Violet is a complicated villain who realizes that she is deeply flawed, but is unable to change. When she reunites with her estranged son, she experiences an epiphany, tragically too late to heal her relationship with her father; whether she can forge a better relationship with her children is left unresolved.
In this story, Atkinson once again plays with the idea of possibilities hinging on one moment in time. The end of this novel is absolutely perfect; she offers the reader a closing look at the fabric of life when some of the stitches have been dropped.