Teddy Todd’s life defines normalcy: he’s born, he grows up, falls in love, gets married, has kids, becomes increasingly older and one day he too takes his last breath – “the fourth wall of the solemn temple falling as quietly as feathers.”
But then again, Teddy’s life is only just about as normal as any human life can be: he’s born in England at the outset of the first world war, grows up in an idyllic estate called Fox Corner, serves as a Halifax bomber pilot in World War II, falls into predictable love with his childhood sweetheart Nancy, has a blindingly selfish daughter called Viola, grows old trying to shield his grandchildren from their mother’s multiple divorces and identity crises, and finally finds some kind of peace as long-alluded death overcomes him. It’s life, plain and simple. Not so very plain and simple after all.
This is A God In Ruins, a “companion novel” in author Kate Atkinson’s words, to her 2013 bestseller Life After Life. Where Life After Life was extraordinary in its fictional scope, A God in Ruins is ordinary. Teddy’s sister, Ursula Todd, was the focus of the former work, Atkinson penning a choose-your-own-adventure novel of sorts where Ursula lived a life, died and then came back again – altering her circumstances slightly or drastically each time to reach different ends. In Ursula’s world Teddy dies in the war, but here Atkinson lets him live out his own story – a “normal” existence compared to his sister, but nonetheless one with its own paths to travail and lessons to impart.
Where Ursula’s many lives were a testament to time’s limitless potential, Teddy’s one life is a harsh check on time’s restraints. In every stage of Teddy’s life it seems death is always lurking, knocking at the door. Death makes its first appearance early on, snatching Teddy’s beloved dog, next unexpectedly whisking away his war-addled father. But it is during his own experience of war that death and time really collide. As a Halifax pilot in Bomber Command, Teddy had one of the most dangerous jobs in a war of dangerous jobs. The odds are not in his favor, yet faced with a sea of dead men Teddy never seems to meet his own demise – a fact that in the darker moments of his “after” he resents. “The dead were legion and remembrance was a kind of duty, he supposed. Not always related to love.” Sometimes living is in fact more painful than dying.
But Teddy’s tale is as much about that seemingly impossible “after,” as it is the war. That “after” includes a happily predictable marriage to Nancy, and dealing with the unhappily unpredictable life of their daughter Viola. It’s joy and heartache, love and loss, regret and gratitude all meshed together to make a man. Ultimately, A God In Ruins is one author’s fictional take on the not-so-fictional concept of life itself – man’s fall from grace and his interminable battle against time to return to that enlightened state, a god brought to ruin by the realities of existence.
Unfortunately, Atkinson’s companion novel doesn’t quite reach the necessary degree of fictional perfection needed to fully realize these concepts. Life After Life, with its Groundhog Day-esque central gimmick, is hard not to lose yourself in. This is not the case with A God In Ruins. The plot, though intrinsically nuanced, is sometimes too dense, understandable given that the book spans nearly a century of one man’s life. And though Teddy’s life is undoubtedly interesting (his aunt writes a book series about his childhood, his grandson becomes a world-renowned yoga instructor, etc.), all the detail gets tedious after a while.
Although it may be less exciting, A God In Ruins is inarguably more real than Life After Life could ever hope to be. It’s fiction, yes, but within that fictitious world lie truths about the inevitability of time and what it means to be a human being in a fallen world. “Nothing can be kept, he thought, everything ran through one’s fingers like sand or water. Or time. Perhaps nothing should be kept.” Nothing is permanent, especially not life.
Teddy’s life is flawed, as is Atkinson’s novel about this fictional bomber pilot. But so too is life – a perfectly imperfect existence where we’re constantly running after time we can’t quite catch. And once a moment’s gone there’s no getting it back. Maybe that reality is what Atkinson was trying to get at. If that’s the case, she does it perfectly.