Nominated for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” is the lilting story of Teddy Todd, from his rural childhood to his dramatic tours in the RAF in World War II to his quiet final days as a man approaching 100. “A God in Ruins” skips back and forth across space and time, thumbing its nose at chronology while painting a life-long portrait of Teddy. In so doing, Atkinson employs a construct that could easily be off-putting and chaotic but in her accomplished hands feels natural and cohesive. Her twisting of time is used to her advantage, building the story in a manner that is more like human memory and conversation, which are rarely sequential.
Teddy is a gentle, quiet man dominated throughout his life by strong, eccentric and sometimes contrary women. In some ways, though he is the central figure of the novel, Teddy is a foil, a supporting member in the cast of his life. It is the women in his life who give him shape and import.
As a young boy in the 1920s, Teddy is one of five children of Sylvie, a woman who appears to have no affinity or affection for motherhood and whose maternal pride rests solely on young Teddy’s shoulders. Sylvie openly favors Teddy and, at times, even appears to remain a part of the family only out of concern for him and his future. Teddy is likewise the chosen object of his Aunt Izzie’s affections. Izzie is enterprising, eccentric, and clownish, disliked by her sister-in-law Sylvie and seemingly impervious to societal restraint. Izzie makes her mark on the world by creating a series of books based loosely on Teddy, in his mind “stealing his childhood” and corrupting his story.
Among his own generation, Teddy is ruled jointly by his sister Ursula, who dotes on him as a pet and is his strongest advocate throughout her life, and Teddy’s wife Nancy, who is his childhood sweetheart and to whom Teddy gets married more out of a sense of destiny than from the pull of passionate love. Teddy defers to his wife for the entirety of their marriage, quietly subverting his own wishes in an unending effort to avoid conflict and to follow her lead. And yet it is Nancy herself who expresses a sense of quiet regret that inadvertently exactly describes Teddy’s whole life.
“Sometimes, when she found herself mired in the twin duties of marriage and motherhood, she thought how her life had been compromised by love.”
The latter half of Teddy’s life is dominated by his daughter Viola and, finally, by his granddaughter Bertie. Viola is a truly unsympathetic character, a brat in her youth who proves to be a devout narcissist. Atkinson’s portrayal of Viola is scathing, and her use of irony is a delight. Inside Viola’s thoughts we learn that:
“If he hadn’t been the father of her children, Viola might have admired Dominic for the way he was so easily able to absolve himself of all obligation simply by asserting his right to self-fulfillment.”
Given Viola’s lifelong shirking of responsibility and self-centered pursuits, her admiration, cloaked in disdain, is striking. In her father’s mind, Viola “was the worst kind of liar – transparently untruthful and yet completely convinced of her ability to deceive.” Even her daughter Bertie, who seems to be miraculously mature and substantive, treats Viola and her lack of insight with tongue in cheek:
“‘Was I really such a terrible mother?’ she asked Bertie. ‘Why the past tense?’ Bertie said.”
“A God in Ruins” is a quiet, thoughtful, character-driven novel. Kate Atkinson’s characters are well-formed and captivating, if not always endearing. Her writing is fluid and easy, her use of time and space clever and well-constructed. This novel is definitely a stand-out.