"A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams."—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
So begins Atkinson's remarkable novel, A God in Ruins. The story of Teddy Todd, brother to Life After Life's Ursula Todd, is told over the course of the 20th century, beginning with his idyllic childhood at Fox Corner, the Todd home in rural, picturesque England, following him through the ravages of his service as an RAF pilot during World War II, and continuing through his life after war and into the end of the century. As a young man, well before the start of war, Teddy has a feeling that he isn't meant for the life everyone else seems destined to live. He has no interest in following his father's business career, in settling down to have children, and he doesn't really know exactly what he would like to do. He knows he loves nature and writing poetry and he even takes a trip around Europe to try to find out what his future could hold.
After war begins to consume Europe, Teddy enlists as a pilot for the RAF. He never expects to survive the war and approaches every mission and each day in training and the war with no expectation of seeing another day. He volunteers for mission after mission and though he experiences so many close calls, he survives, defying all the statistics. After the war he marries Nancy, his childhood sweetheart and they have one daughter before Nancy dies of brain cancer. Teddy spends the rest of his life caring for Viola, his daughter who deeply resents him (for reasons unknown to him, but are revealed to the reader in due time) and later, caring for his grandchildren.
The narrative switches between Teddy's point of view, Nancy's, Viola's, and his grandchildren Bertie and Sunny. Each character has a fascinating and heartbreaking story and some narratives are more engaging than others but each one is rich and heartbreaking in their own right.
Ever since finishing Atkinson's Life After Life, the companion predecessor to this novel, I've been in enamored of Atkinson's storytelling. The complexities and nuances of her plots and characters are nothing short of masterful. I had extremely high hopes going in to A God in Ruins and I was not disappointed. Teddy, as a character rivals only his sister Ursula as one of the best characters I've ever read. There were many times throughout the book when I found myself overcome with emotion for Teddy's story, particularly when we read about his old age, the loss of his beloved family members and friends and, of course, his war story.
I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, war stories, books that could be called sweeping epics, and anyone who loves an engaging, multi-generational story.
I read this as part of BookRiot's Read Harder challenge. This completed challenge #14: Read a book about war. Just like in Life After Life, Atkinson finds a way to make what is, at its heart a war novel, about so much more. In her author's note, however, she says she set out to write a war novel. A goal of taking on this reading challenge was to read books that I wouldn't normally read. So far this year, I've read two really detailed, dense, distinctly-about-a-war novels. (Catch-22 was the other.) The historical fiction stories to which I gravitate tend to have war as a backdrop and I'm an avowed fan of Atkinson. But I'm still counting it as part of the challenge! And though I inch closer to the goal by fractions of inches, I'm just not a 'gonna make it.
2017 Read Harder Challenge
3. Read a book about books.
4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
8. Read a travel memoir.
9. Read a book you’ve read before.
10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
13. Read a nonfiction book about technology.
15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.
16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
20. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
21. Read a book published by a micropress.
24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.