“War is savage. For everyone. Innocent or guilty.”
Kate Atkinson is, without doubt (for me at least), one of the greatest writers of our time. I remember discovering her books when I was about 14 and devouring my way through my school library. I was recommended Behind The Scenes At The Museum and was hooked on her from then on.
Having read and adored Life After Life, I was very exciting when I found out Atkinson had a new, in her words “companion” book on the way. And I can happily say this book does not disappoint. Whilst Life After Life chronicled the multiple lives of Ursula, in A God In Ruins, Atkinson delves into the life of Ursula’s brother, Teddy. Once again the author plays with the structure of the narrative, allowing herself to jump backwards and forwards in time in a non-linear direction but often linking these episodes by an idea or an image. As Atkinson herself notes in her wonderful Author’s Note, she often comes back to certain images or ideas such as birds, flying and falling, and the notion of Utopia. In this way, the time-hopping doesn’t jar and we can easily follow the flow of the narrative. Furthermore, it brings into stark relief the idea that life is fleeting, one day we are a young boy gazing at skylarks, and the next an old man in a nursing home.
There is a sense of melancholy and loss which permeates this book, only fitting considering its subject: that of World War II. A large component of the book focus on Teddy’s role as a RAF bomber pilot and his missions as part of the bombing campaign which devastated Germany during the Second World War. One of Atkinson’s many strengths is her ability to conjure up these ‘set pieces’ and bring them to life with such clarity. Her descriptions of bombing missions, the fear, flying through thunder and lightening, are some of the best passages of the book and it is clear how much time and research she put into her novel.
As Atkinson says, “War is savage. For everyone. Innocent or guilty.” It is always unfair. This novel doesn’t just chart the effects of war at the time but shows the reader how it resonates down the generations, affecting everyone, in particular those who are left standing afterwards. It is about “All those beautiful songs that would never be sung.” The stories that were silenced by war. And silence is something which permeates the novel. The silence which weighs heavily on Teddy and those around him, in all his relationships. It comes in the form of things left unsaid, of secrets, of failing to open up, of repressing memories and keeping them to oneself. And, of course, we see that this question of silence holds extraordinary poignancy when we reach the end of the book. But that way lie spoilers, so I will say no more. Suffice it to say many tears were shed. In her Afterword, Atkinson acknowledges it as “the whole raison d’être of the novel…hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination, which is revealed only at the end.” It really is a master stroke and packs a big literary wallop!
However, whilst the vein of silence and war runs through this novel, a large part of Atkinson’s brilliance lies in her wonderful ability to capture and present the essence of human beings and humanity. Her depiction of Teddy and those around him really capture what humanity is, and sadly what it can sometimes mean. The lives of humans are terribly short, and our actions and our relationships with others are what makes it special. We must embrace every moment of our song, for we are lucky – unlike many young people in the war – to have so long to sing it.
This book is worth every tear I shed, and cements in my mind the brilliance of Kate Atkinson. If you haven’t read it already, grab a copy now!