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A God in Ruins


A God in Ruins

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams." Kate Atkinson's richly atmospheric companion piece to her classic novel LIFE AFTER LIFE takes its title from this profound quote. In A GOD IN RUINS, we examine the life of Teddy Todd. The text is written in such a way that readers will literally lose themselves in it while Teddy's life passes like a dream before their eyes.

In LIFE AFTER LIFE, Ursula Todd had a distinctly unique advantage to handling her life. She had the ability to be reborn --- over and over again --- and constantly was given the opportunity to get her life (and surrounding world at times) right. Teddy does not have that luxury. His life is explored over decades, and its most critical moments are examined deeply.

"The text is written in such a way that readers will literally lose themselves in it while Teddy's life passes like a dream before their eyes.... A GOD IN RUINS is a truly masterful work."

A GOD IN RUINS is not written chronologically. Rather, it jumps around throughout moments in Teddy's life, leaving the reader to piece together what is happening or has happened before each passage. It is sort of like watching an Inarritu film that has no linear progression but merely throws scenes together randomly. This asks much of the reader, but the result is quite rewarding.

There is one line that I believe sums up the novel perfectly: "Death was not the end.  Sometimes it took a whole lifetime to understand that." Teddy saw himself as a poet and was a nature lover and bird watcher at an early age. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, and lives in a quiet English suburban town. However, things change as World War II approaches and the German threat has all of Europe in turmoil. Teddy enlists in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot and must separate his own ethical nature from the task at hand, which will bring about much death and mayhem.

Every life tells a story, and Teddy's is no different. His is actually more dramatic than most people he meets. His family believes he is dead when he does not return from the war (he was actually a POW). Upon his return, he must deal with the extremely diverse emotions of welcoming a young daughter, Viola, while Nancy shortly thereafter develops a terminal brain tumor. Nancy asks Teddy to end her life, though he is reluctant. He is torn emotionally and spiritually as he was able to mindlessly take lives during WWII, but finds he may be unable to fulfill his dying wife's last request.

A GOD IN RUINS leaps from Teddy's childhood right through to the end of his life in 2012. We see Viola grow from a motherless young girl who fears the world into a middle-aged adult who is emotionally and physically distant from her own children and unable to deal with the demise of her father in a nursing home. Having the narrative jump back and forth allows readers to see Teddy at different points in his life and view what his life could have been and eventually ended up as.

Throughout the novel, there are interspersed passages from a fictional storybook called The Adventures of Augustus. Ursula used to tease her brother that he was Augustus. These excerpts play nicely with the story of Teddy Todd and offer another example of what could have been. A GOD IN RUINS is a truly masterful work.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on May 8, 2015

A God in Ruins
by Kate Atkinson

  • Publication Date: January 12, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316176508
  • ISBN-13: 9780316176507