‘But what about the war?’ Nancy said. The war? he thought, secretly amazed that she could think that something so shattering in its reality could be rendered so quickly into fiction. ‘Life then,’ she said. ‘Your life. A Bildungsroman.’
‘I think I would rather just live my life,’ Teddy said, ‘not make an artifice of it.’ And what on earth would he write about? If you excluded the war (an enormous exclusion, he acknowledged) then nothing had happened to him. [loc. 1385]
A God in Ruins complements Atkinson's Life After Life, which was the story of Ursula and her many lives. A God in Ruins focusses on her brother Teddy, the golden boy who becomes an RAF pilot in WWII. Rather than describing a multiplicity of lives, this novel focusses on a single life, and on the simultaneity of incidents in that life: the past is present, inescapable, and -- perhaps as an illustration of the confused time-sense of dementia -- more vivid than 'reality'.
Teddy is getting old, but he has his family: his daughter Viola, her offspring Bertie and Sunny. He has loved and lost. He is the kind of man (the generation?) who sees no point in unburdening himself of the past, of speaking to others about pain and guilt and suffering. As the mosaic of his life is built up -- scenes from his childhood with the aunt who uses him as template for her books about a mischievous schoolboy; scenes from the war, his marriage, family life -- the picture they make becomes clearer. It's evident that Teddy was most alive in wartime, and afterwards his life is, at least externally, rather dull. (Meanwhile a whole universe exists in his head.)
The structure of the novel, that freeform skipping around in time, lets Atkinson play with foreshadowing and recollection, interjecting authorial asides in a way that, in a more linear novel, would jar. "Teddy supposed his own son would have to go there too, although this boy existed in a future that Teddy couldn’t even begin to imagine. He didn’t need to, of course, for in that future he had no sons, only a daughter, Viola" [loc. 91]. But, in a sense, everything is happening at once. Teddy's wartime memories, beautiful and horrific, are as immediate to him as the 'care home' in which Viola visits him.
I found this a powerful and distressing novel, because so much of it brought to mind my father and my relationship with him as dementia set in. (Not to mention my mother, and the fact that I read this soon after a landmark birthday, having survived beyond the age at which my mother had a personality-changing cerebral hemorrhage.) I saw far too much of myself in the unlikeable Viola. A God in Ruins is captivating, splendidly written and yet not a book I think I will wish to reread for a while.