This novel is hard to review without including “spoilers” – and there is no doubt that anticipation of the ending is a significant part of the experience of reading this novel. If you do not want to read a direct and detailed analysis of the novel’s ending, you should not read this review.
A God in Ruins begins with Teddy Todd’s aunt Izzie mining his life for fiction. Teddy is eleven. “‘What makes you you? What do you like doing? Who are your friends? Do you have a thingamajig, you know… David and Goliath – a slingshot thingy?’
‘A catapult?’ [Teddy asks.]
‘Yes! For going around hitting people and killing things and so on.’
‘Killing things?’ [Teddy says.] ‘No! I would never do that… I used to use it to get conkers down from the tree” (11).
The end product of Izzie’s interrogation is a series of children’s books about Augustus, Teddy’s rambunctious alter ego. The series makes Izzie rich, and she takes off to do glamorous writerly things and is rarely mentioned again, though Teddy thinks of Augustus occasionally, usually with mild annoyance. Augustus represents a childless middle-aged woman’s stereotype of a young boy – Tom Sawyer, Tom Swift, and so forth. This opening device establishes Teddy as thoughtful and serious, while also establishing him as fundamentally misunderstood. It also hints at the idea that there are “two” Teddys (i.e. Teddy himself and his fictional counterpart, Augustus), an idea that returns later.
“‘Are you a Boy Scout?’ Izzie asks.
‘Used to be,’ Teddy muttered. ‘Used to be a Cub. It was not a topic he wished to explore with her but it was actually impossible for him to lie, as if a spell had been put on him at birth…
‘Did you get kicked out of the Scouts?’ Izzie asked eagerly. ‘Cashiered? Was there some terrible scandal?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Do tell. What happened?’” (11-12)
This opening dialogue establishes the eleven year-old Teddy as honest, thoughtful, and patient. It also establishes him as the origin point of a series of myths created by Izzie and propagated by her readers. He’s almost George Washington with the cherry tree, though I’m not sure how much that story would have been on Atkinson’s mind, as she is British. We also know early on (this narrative is not told chronologically) that Teddy becomes a war hero – a bomber pilot and later wing commander of a bombing unit that flew sorties over Germany nearly every night during the years leading up to D-Day. And if there are any people in our world who are routinely transformed into the objects of myth – in the United States, in Europe, and no doubt elsewhere – it is the World War II generation.
Full disclosure: I am writing a novel about that generation too. It seems few writers can resist it. I think of myself as having above-average street cred in this area because my dad – age 92 – is a veteran of that war himself. I live with him. As I write this review, he is in the next room, reading the paper. By noon he’ll have forgotten everything he read, but he reads the paper every morning because he has always read the paper every morning. The war novel I am writing is stalled, and the main reason it’s stalled is that I am determined to resist cliché. I can stay away from linguistic clichés easily enough, but trying to tell a World War II story without resorting to clichés of plot and character is like navigating a minefield. Atkinson doesn’t wholly avoid these sorts of clichés, but she does better than most.
A God in Ruins is organized into eighteen chapters, beginning with Teddy as an eleven year-old under his aunt Izzie’s microscope in 1925 and ending with Teddy’s death in 2012. The novel does not end in 2012, mind you, because the narration is non-sequential – but 2012 is the latest date the novel reaches. Five chapters concern Teddy’s war years, as he flies more and more bombing missions over Germany, becoming over time an object of superstition for the men on his crew and (later) the men he commands. The two-page first chapter of the book – just before Izzie’s grilling of Teddy – depicts Teddy taking a walk along the airstrip just before his final flight, not because he wants to take a walk but because he always takes this walk, and his men – who have been made deeply superstitious by fear – will be afraid to fly if he doesn’t. This nightly walk reminds me a little of my dad’s daily reading of the newspaper (and his many other routines), which I don’t think is motivated by superstition, but who knows?
We are told throughout the novel that Teddy was a POW for a portion of the war. A POW camp is mentioned, as is the suggestion that his plane went down in the North Sea. I was a little surprised each time a “Teddy’s War” chapter passed and we didn’t glimpse the inside of the POW camp, but I’ve learned in my own writing that if I’m writing about material that I haven’t experienced myself and if that material is already ripe with cliché, sometimes it’s best to leave the scene out altogether and just allude to it – and I thought Atkinson might be thinking along the same lines (I was half right – more on this in a moment).
In the chapters set after the war, we learn that Teddy married his childhood neighbor Nancy, even though he was not “in love with” her in the traditional sense. Nancy was a cryptologist during the war, and Teddy proposed to her when they were both on leave in London. At the time, Teddy didn’t believe in “an afterwards” – he did not expect to survive the war. When he survives, he marries Nancy because he promised to do so. During the war, he has a number of other liaisons, some of which are sexual, because he wants to experience what it is like to be “in love” – and he never really achieves that goal. Teddy and Nancy have one child: Viola. During Viola’s difficult birth, a doctor tells Teddy that he might be forced to choose between saving Nancy and saving the baby, and he answers without forethought that the doctor should save Nancy – a sentiment that to me seems a whole lot better than being “in love.” Nancy develops a brain tumor and dies when Viola is only eight. At Nancy’s request, and with the silent acquiescence of her doctor, Teddy administers a deadly dose of morphine in order to end her suffering. When she doesn’t die from the morphine, he suffocates her – again, by her specific request. Over and over – in the war, of course, but also in the scene in which Nancy dies – the reader is reminded of eleven year-old Teddy’s horror at the prospect of killing animals with a slingshot: “Killing things? No! I would never do that” (11). At the beginning of the novel, this statement seemed to suggest young Teddy’s humanity, his thoughtfulness, his respect for life. By the end, it simply marks him as naïve.
Viola, who loses her mother when she is eight years old – and, we learn along the way, witnessed Teddy suffocating Nancy – grows up awkward and angry. Her relationship with Teddy is highly strained. She marries several men and has two children – Sunny and Bertie – whom Teddy helps to raise. Sunny and Bertie both grow up loathing their mother – who, like Aunt Izzie, eventually becomes a highly successful writer – and adoring their grandfather. We learn that Viola saw Teddy killing her mother too late in the novel for it to impact our sympathy for her – at least in my opinion. Her horrible treatment of both her children and her father make her irredeemable. Yet I also saw myself in Viola, and still do. She’s selfish; so am I. She’s angry about things she can’t change. Like her father, she never seems to be fully “in love” – and there is certainly no one in her life, as far as I can tell, to whom she is as devoted as Teddy is to Nancy, to his grandchildren, to the many men he flew with and commanded during the war, and to Viola herself. Again, Viola, c’est moi. I often say that my dad shows more consideration for the homeless woman who comes each week to rifle through our recycle bin (he organizes the bin for her, making sure the cans and bottles that she can exchange for a deposit are on top – yes, really) than I have ever shown for any other human being in my life. In a Facebook exchange, my friend Tracy wrote, “Viola in general is a melodramatic mess, but that feels like part of Atkinson’s goal – her saga is almost like a red herring. We are all important in our own minds, with Viola just taking it to a ridiculous extreme.” I agree 100% with the second part of Tracy’s statement, but I’m not quite sure that Viola’s plot line is a red herring. This may just be because I’ve been trained to believe that skilled novelists don’t let any of their plot lines become red herrings – and of course there is no way to prove that this is true. But if anything, Viola is a foil to the devotion and self-sacrifice of both of her parents, and she’s the vehicle by which Teddy gets his grandchildren, who love him as his daughter never could – possibly (and ironically) because they are more distanced than Viola is from Teddy’s years as a person who kills others (i.e. Nancy and thousands of nameless Germans).
But in some ways most of this novel is a red herring. After extensive delay of the fate of Teddy’s last flight, we see Teddy “fighting” his burning plane until he reaches the coast and can crash in the North Sea instead of over German territory. He has already given his parachute away to a crew member, and the rest of his crew has already jumped to meet whatever fate they will meet – presumably death or capture. In describing this final flight, Atkinson uses a strange metaphor of “walls” that I am still working to understand. Throughout the war, Teddy has thought of the air campaign against Germany as the act of throwing thousands upon thousands of birds (i.e. planes) against “a wall” in hope that they wall will fall down; as he completes each of his missions, he comments that the wall still stands. The “walls” referred to at the end are different, I think, though of course they echo the imagery from earlier in the novel.
The last chapter in the novel is called “2012: The Last Flight: Dharma.” This title is odd, since the rest of the war chapters are labeled with the years in which they take place: 1942, 1943, and so forth. The use of Dharma – a word used briefly and comically much earlier in the novel, as the name of a classmate of Sunny’s at a Waldorf school – hints at the chapter just before the last, in which Viola, long estranged from Sunny, impulsively flies (flies!) to Bali, where he is a yoga teacher and guru (ministering to American tourists who are “doing the eat-pray-love shit” ; what’s not to love about a British novelist who spins that phrase?). Dharma translates roughly as “the behavior that makes life and the universe possible,” and the presence of this word at the end of the novel is remarkably associative. It suggests Teddy’s bravery in conducting mission after mission in spite of terrible odds; also his marriage to Nancy, his steady and dutiful care of her and of Viola and of his grandchildren. It can be read ironically too, since a massive campaign against the lives of German civilians does not seem like a behavior that makes life and the universe possible – unless of course one takes the long view, that the future of life and the universe is possible because of men like Teddy who sacrificed their own innocence and goodness, killing so many for the greater good. Dharma also (dare I mention it?) makes me think of the TV series Lost – an association I wanted to dismiss until I realized that this series also concerns downed planes and matters of love and devotion and fate and has its own highly ambiguous ending.
The “Dharma” chapter begins with Viola taking Sunny’s yoga classes. He won’t agree to see her in any other context. There is a self-sacrifice and an enforced humility to this – it suggests images of Shaolin monks standing motionless outside the temple for weeks before being allowed entry. The narration tells us that each class “was designed with punishment in mind” (435) – punishment of Viola, that is. While all of this is going on, Teddy is dying back in London. Viola gets the call and tells Sunny the news. Sunny – who loves his grandfather deeply – does not return to England for the funeral. In their last conversation before Viola flies home, she admits to being “overwhelmed by love. For [Sunny].” The narration (not Sunny himself), says, “Oh, Viola. At last.”
Next comes the ending that, depending on how one interprets it, may or may not have made all of the above irrelevant. Teddy is dying: “Moments left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood. It didn’t matter, he realized, he didn’t mind, he was going where millions had gone before and where millions would follow after. He shared his fate with the many” (439). This passage could be set in 2012, when Teddy is dying in a hospital bed. There’s no reason that it can’t be set then. But the title of the chapter is “The Last Flight.” Teddy’s acceptance of his death at this moment could take place in 2012, but it could also take place in 1944, as his plane crashes into the North Sea with only Teddy on board – a Teddy who has just sacrificed himself in order to (possibly) save his crew members but also to save whatever civilians may have been on the ground when his plane fell. As many people as Teddy killed in his years as a bomber pilot, he died (if we interpret this passage as taking place in 1944) in a way that saved some people too.
“An alarming crack appears in the golden palace,” writes Atkinson just a page later. What golden palace? I wonder. “The first wall shivers and crumbles. The second wall buckles and falls, stones tumble to the ground” (440). What’s the deal with the walls? Are they the walls of the golden palace? The “walls” of Teddy’s plane as it burns itself up? The metaphorical wall that Teddy imagined the commanders throwing birds at? By the time “the third wall comes down with a great crash, sending up a cloud of dust and debris” (441), I was already thinking of the theatrical concept of “the fourth wall” – a term that is also used to describe written fiction. In theatre, the fourth wall is the conceit that the empty space at the front of the stage is really a wall – that the actors are not aware of the audience and are living out “real” lives rather than lives that have been scripted for them. Playwrights and directors instruct actors to “break the fourth wall” all the time – think of the Stage Manager in Our Town winking at the audience as he tells them to go home and get a good night’s sleep. The effect of this technique can be comic, but it can also comment on the artifice that all drama (and fiction, and poetry…) really is. When “the fourth wall of the solemn temple falls as quietly as feathers,” I was already prepared to think of the “golden palace” as fiction. I did a quick Google search to see if this metaphor was an established one (I suspected Henry James) but got no credible results, so the metaphor is likely Atkinson’s own. With the destruction of the fourth wall, we are now highly aware that we are reading a work of fiction (of metafiction, really). Just as the novel began with Izzie sculpting the real Teddy Todd into a fictional character named Augustus, it ends with Kate Atkinson drawing attention to her own constructed world.
In the next paragraph, Teddy crashes his plane into the North Sea: “It was over. Teddy sank to the silent sea-bed and joined all the tarnished treasure that lay there unseen, forty fathoms deep” (441). And just in case you think the interpretation I laid out in the last paragraph is far-fetched, the next paragraph reads as follows: “And with a massive roar the fifth wall comes down and the house of fiction falls, taking Viola and Sunny and Bertie with it. They melt into the thin air and disappear. Pouf!” (441 – italics are mine). I presume the “fifth wall” is the floor, since Teddy dies by falling from the sky. The chapter proceeds as a litany of how the world will be different without Teddy (speaking of Our Town!): “The books that Viola wrote vanish from bookshelves as if by magic. Dominic Villiers” – Sunny and Bertie’s father – “marries a girl who wears pearls and a twinset and drinks himself to death. Nancy marries a barrister in 1950 and has two sons. During a routine examination, her brain cancer is discovered and successfully removed. Her mind is less keen, her intelligence less bright, but she is still Nancy” (442).
When I read these words last night, they moved me. I was moved by Teddy’s heroism, of course, even though I knew this heroism was coming. I was moved by the various miseries that were undone by Teddy’s early demise: Nancy’s recovery from brain cancer, the non-conception of Viola and Sunny and Bertie, all of whom are unhappy people. This is an ironic play on the Our Town conceit, in which the heroine learns of all the ways life will be terrible after her death. I thought of the larger aesthetic statement the novel was making about the nature of fiction, but that abstract idea didn’t move me as much as the fates of the characters did. My friend Tracy writes, “Why is it that we feel for Teddy? Just because we have been following his story? Is value in life simply the number of lives that counterbalance it? Such an amazing way to demonstrate the power and loss of the RAF airmen and by extension all who lay down their lives for others.”
As I write (or try to write) my own war novel, I ask myself all the time why the world needs one more World War II novel – especially one written by someone who wasn’t there. I am confident that I can add fully fleshed characters to the cast of hundreds of thousands that already populate WWII fiction, and I can do so without relying too much on cliché. I am confident that I can write prose to do my subject matter justice, and I am confident in my ability to balance direct address of atrocity with a willingness to sidestep the horrors that have already taken on the status of cliché: the death camps, D-Day, the blitz, Rosie the Riveter, Hiroshima. But what this novel helped me to understand is that writers will need to keep on innovating new containers to hold material that is too overwhelming to be dealt with directly. Each time a writer devises a new container, that container will (presuming the author’s work is published and read widely) soon become its own cliché. Kate Atkinson has crafted such a container, and now no one else can tell a war story her way. This as much as anything is what moved me at the end of this novel.
I am glad that I read this novel, but mostly I am glad that I read it now, because a time will come when I won’t be able to go anywhere near books like this one. I’m even glad that I read a library copy instead of buying one. When my own veteran dies, an entire genre of fiction (let alone history) will be closed off to me for years, maybe decades. When I was reading the last few pages last night, I wondered if this will be the last WWII novel I have ever read. My dad is healthy and strong at 92, but that doesn’t matter. When he naps, I watch his chest rise and fall – as he must have done when I was a baby, I suppose. When he chokes, I rush to his side. When he takes city buses (I can’t stop him!), I picture him tossed around like a scarecrow whenever the driver brakes. “You do take seats when people offer them to you, right?” I ask. He says he does. I’m not sure I believe him.
And here’s one more thing I thought of as I read the ending of this novel – a story my mom liked to tell. Well before I was born, back when “the war” was still bandied around in conversation without qualifiers – because everyone knew which war – a young relative asked my dad if he was killed in the war.
He answered, “Yes.”