A God in Ruins relates the life of Teddy Todd – would-be poet, heroic World War II bomber pilot, husband, father, and grandfather – as he navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century. For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never expected to have.
This gripping, often deliriously funny yet emotionally devastating book looks at war – that great fall of Man from grace – and the effect it has, not only on those who live through it, but on the lives of the subsequent generations. It is also about the infinite magic of fiction.
Those who loved the bestselling Life After Life will recognise Teddy as Ursula Todd’s adored younger brother – but for those who have not read it, A God in Ruins stands fully on its own. Few will dispute that it proves once again that Kate Atkinson is one of the most exceptional novelists of our age.
'Better than most fiction you’ll read this year' The Times
'Witty and compassionate' Marian Keyes
'Brilliant…a major writer' David Mitchell
'Magnificent' Washington Post
'Extraordinarily affecting' Telegraph
'Devastating' New York Times
'Engrossing' Irish Independent
'Inexhaustibly ingenious' Hilary Mantel
'A marvel' Gillian Flynn
'Bleakly funny' Financial Times
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30th March, 1944
The Last Flight
He walked as far as the hedge that signalled the end of the airfield.
The beating of the bounds. The men referred to it as his 'daily constitutional' and fretted when he didn’t take it. They were superstitious. Everyone was superstitious.
Beyond the hedge there were bare fields, ploughed over last autumn. He didn’t expect to see the alchemy of spring, to see the dull brown earth change to bright green and then pale gold. A man could count his life in harvests reaped. He had seen enough.
They were surrounded by flat farmland. The farmhouse itself stood square and immoveable over to the left. At night a red light shone from its roof to stop them crashing into it. If they flew over it when they were coming into land they knew they had overshot and were in trouble.
From here he could see the farmer’s daughter in the yard, feeding the geese. Wasn't there a nursery rhyme in there somewhere? No, he was thinking of the farmer’s wife, wasn’t he – cutting off tales with a carving knife. A horrid image. Poor mice, he had thought when he was a boy. Still thought the same now that he was a man. Nursery rhymes were brutal affairs.
He had never met the farmer’s daughter nor did he know her name, but he was disproportionally fond of her. She always waved them off. Sometimes she was joined by her father, once or twice by her mother, but the girl’s presence in the farmyard was a constant for every raid.
She caught sight of him now and waved. Rather than return the wave, he saluted her. He imagined she would like that. Of course, from this distance he was just a uniform. She had no idea who he was. Teddy was just one of the many.
He whistled for the dog.
‘See!’ he said, ‘there - a lark. A skylark.’ He glanced up at her and saw that she was looking in the wrong place. ‘No, over there,’ he said, pointing. She was completely hopeless.
‘Oh,’ she said at last. ‘There, I see it! How queer - what’s it doing?’
‘Hovering, and then it’ll go up again probably.’ The skylark soared on its transcendental thread of song. The quivering flight of the bird and the beauty of its music triggered an unexpectedly deep emotion in him. ‘Can you hear it?’
His aunt cupped a hand to an ear in a theatrical way. She was as out of place as a peacock, wearing an odd hat, red like a pillar-box and stuck with two large pheasant tail-feathers that bobbed around with the slightest movement of her head. He wouldn’t be surprised if someone took a shot at her. ‘If only,’ he thought. Teddy was allowed – allowed himself - barbaric thoughts as long as they remained unvoiced. (‘Good manners,’ his mother, counselled, was ‘the armour that one must don anew every morning.’)
‘Hear what?’ his aunt said eventually.
‘The song,’ he said, mustering patience. ‘The skylark’s song. It’s stopped now,’ he added as she continued to make a show of listening.
‘It might begin again.’
‘No, it won’t, it can’t, it’s gone. Flown away.’ He flapped his arms to demonstrate. Despite the feathers in her hat she clearly knew nothing about birds. Or any animals for that matter. She didn’t even possess a cat. She was indifferent to Trixie, their Lurcher, currently nosing her way enthusiastically through the dried-up ditch at the side of the road. Trixie was his most stalwart companion and had been by his side since she was a puppy when she had been so small that she could squeeze through the front door of his sisters’ dollhouse.
Was he supposed to be educating his aunt, he wondered? Was that why they were here? ‘The lark’s known for its song,’ he said instructively. ‘It’s beautiful.’ It was impossible to instruct on the subject of beauty, of course. It simply was. You were either moved by it or you weren’t. His sisters, Pamela and Ursula, were, his elder brother, Maurice, wasn’t. His brother, Jimmy, was too young for beauty, his father possibly too old. His father, Hugh, had a gramophone recording of The Lark Ascending which they sometimes listened to on wet Sunday afternoons. It was lovely but not as lovely as the lark itself. ‘The purpose of art,’ his mother, Sylvie, said – instructed even - ‘is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.’ Her own father, Teddy’s grandfather, had been a famous artist, dead long ago, a relationship that gave his mother authority on the subject of art. And beauty too, Teddy supposed. All these things – Art, Truth, Beauty – had capital letters when his mother spoke about them.
‘When the skylark flies high,’ he continued, rather hopelessly to Izzie, ‘it means it’s fine weather.’
‘Well, one doesn’t need a bird to tell one if it’s good weather or not, one simply looks about,’ Izzie said. ‘And this afternoon is glorious. I adore the sun,’ she added, closing her eyes and raising her painted face to the skies.
Who didn’t, Teddy thought? Not his grandmother perhaps, who led a gloomy drawing-room life in Hampstead, with heavy cotton nets drawn to prevent the light entering the house. Or perhaps to stop the dark escaping.
‘The Knights’ Code’, which he had learned by heart from Scouting for Boys, a book he frequently turned to in times of uncertainty, even now in his self-exile from the movement, demanded that ‘Chivalry requireth that youth should be trained to perform the most laborious and humble offices with cheerfulness and grace.’ He supposed entertaining Izzie was one of those occasions. It was certainly laborious.
He shaded his eyes against the sun and scanned the skies for the skylark. It failed to make a reappearance and he had to make do with the aerial manoeuvres of the swallows. He thought of Icarus and wondered what he would have looked like from the ground. Quite big, he supposed. But Icarus was a myth, wasn’t he? He was going to boarding school after the summer holidays and he really must start getting his facts in order. ‘You will need to be a stoic, old chap,’ his father advised. ‘It will be a trial, that’s the point of it really, I suppose. Best to keep your head below the parapet,’ he added. ‘Neither sink nor float, just sort of paddle about in the middle.’
‘All the men in the family’ went to the school, his Hampstead grandmother said (his only grandmother, Sylvie’s mother having died long ago), as if it were a law, written down in ancient times. 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, something which would be a sadness for him although he never spoke of it, certainly not to Viola who would have been volubly affronted.
Teddy was taken aback when Izzie unexpectedly started to sing and – more startling – do a little dance. ‘Alouette, Alouette, gentille Alouette.’ He knew no French to speak of yet and thought she was singing not ‘gentille’ but ‘jaunty’, a word he rather liked. ‘Do you know that song?’ she asked him.
‘It’s from the war. The French soldiers sang it.’ The fleeting shadow of something – sorrow, perhaps – passed across her features, but then just as suddenly she said gleefully, ‘The lyrics are quite horrible. All about plucking the poor swallow. Its eyes and feathers and legs and so on.’
In that inconceivable yet inevitable war still to come - Teddy’s war - Alouette was the name of 425 Squadron, the French Canadians. In the February of ’44, not long before his last flight, Teddy made a an emergency landing at their base at Tholthorpe, two engines on fire, shot up as they crossed the Channel. The French boys gave his crew brandy, rough stuff that they were nonetheless grateful for. Their squadron badges, something Teddy hadn’t known before he met them, showed a swallow above the motto Je te plumerai and he had thought about this day with Izzie. It was a memory that seemed to belong to someone else.
Izzie did a pirouette. ‘What larks!’ she said, laughing. Is this, he wondered, what his father meant when he said Izzie was ‘ludicrously unstable’?
‘What larks,’ Izzie repeated. ‘Great Expectations. Haven’t you read it?’ For a surprising moment she sounded like his mother. ‘But, of course, I was making a joke. Because there isn’t one any longer. The lark, I mean. Flown orf. Gorn,’ she said in a silly Cockney accent. ‘I’ve eaten lark,’ she added in an offhand way. ‘In Italy. They’re considered a delicacy over there. There’s not much eating on a lark, of course. No more than a mouthful really.’
Teddy shuddered. The idea of the sublime little bird being plucked from the sky, of its exquisite song being interrupted in full flight, was horrible to him.
Many, many years later, in the early Seventies, Viola, discovered Emily Dickinson on an American Studies course that was part of her degree. In her scrawly, untamed hand she copied down the first verse of a poem she thought her father would like (too lazy to transcribe the whole of the short poem). ‘Split the lark – and you’ll find the Music, bulb after bulb in silver rolled’. He was surprised she had thought of him, she rarely did. He supposed literature was one of the few things they held in common even though they rarely, if ever, discussed it. He considered sending her something in return, a poem, even a few choice lines – a means of communicating with her – ‘Hail to thee, blythe spirit! Bird though never wert’ or ‘Hark how the cheerfull birds do chaunt their lays and carol of love’s praise’ or ‘Ethereal Minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky! Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?’ (Was there a poet who hadn’t written about skylarks?) He supposed his daughter would think he was patronizing her in some way. She had an aversion to learning anything from him, possibly from everyone, and so in the end he simply wrote back, ‘Thank you, very thoughtful of you.’
Before he could stop himself - the armour of good manners falling away - he said, ‘It’s disgusting to eat a lark, Aunt Izzie.’
‘Why is it disgusting? You eat chicken and so on, don’t you? What’s the difference, after all?’ Izzie had driven an ambulance in the Great War, dead poultry could do little to ruffle her emotions.
A world of difference, Teddy thought, although he couldn’t help but wonder what a lark would taste like. Thankfully, he was distracted from this thought by Trixie barking extravagantly at something. He bent down to investigate. ‘A slow worm,’ he said appreciatively to himself, the lark temporarily forgotten. He picked it up gently in both hands and displayed it to Izzie.
‘A snake?’ she said, grimacing, snakes apparently having no charms for her.
‘No, a slow worm,’ Teddy said. ‘Not a snake. Not a worm either. It’s a lizard actually.’ Its bronze-gold lustred scales gleamed in the sun. This was beauty too. Was there anything in nature that wasn’t? Even a slug demanded a certain salutation, although not from his mother.
‘What a funny little boy you are,’ Izzie said.
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‘Triumphant...such a dazzling read...Atkinson gives Teddy's wartime experiences the full treatment in a series of thrilling set pieces. Even more impressive, though, is her ability to invest the more everyday events with a similar grandeur...almost as innovative as Atkinson's technique in Life After Life - a possibly more authentic as an expression of how it feels to be alive...it ends on one of the most devastating twists in recent fiction...[which] adds a further level of overwhelming poignancy to an already extraordinarily affecting book’
James Walton, Daily Telegraph
‘This is a novel about war and the shadow it casts even over generations who have never known it, but it is also a novel about fiction... a novel that cares deeply about its characters and about the purpose of fiction in making sense of our collective past. A God in Ruins, together with its predecessor, is Atkinson's finest work, and confirmation that her genre-defying writing continues to surprise and dazzle’
Stephanie Merritt, Observer
‘With A God in Ruins she, once again, proves herself to be a writer of considerable talent. Her command of structure is extraordinary...She writes with terrific compassion for her characters...also shows off a brilliantly brittle sense of humour that on several occasions made me laugh out loud...to my mind, A God in Ruins stands as an equally magnificent achievement’
Matt Cain, Independent on Sunday
‘Horribly funny...every page has some vividly original phrase...But the tour de force is her treatment of Teddy’s experience as a bomber pilot, recreated as memorably as the Blitz scenes in Life After Life... nothing can quite account for the imaginative leaps she has made...a really affecting memorial to the huge numbers of bomber crew who died’
‘Better than most fiction you'll read this year...Atkinson's prose is as bright as gunfire in the Second World War sections...I can't think of any writer to match her ability to grasp a period in the past. No, not even you, Booker-winning Hilary Mantel’
‘An amazing accomplishment, a breath taking literary sleight of hand but, unlike chilly experimental novels, this one is brim-full of heart-breaking emotion and with characters that mean the world. This is an unmissable book’
‘Hugely impressive and immensely moving...Atkinson portrays intricate family conflict, the horrors of war and the terrors of illness with a candour coloured by kindness...Atkinson's descriptions of the life of a pilot in Bomber Command are harrowing, edge-of-the-seat stuff. Yet there is plenty of the sharply observed humour that makes Atkinson's work a treat...The twist, when it comes, is well earned and revelatory. "The bottom line is that it's fiction," Atkinson reminds us after the novel ends. Fiction of the very best kind’
Erica Wagner, New Statesman
‘Atkinson pursues her own games with time, with an understated gracefulness that endows these pages with an assured, easeful sweep. In turn, we spend less time marvelling at Atkinson's bold formal accomplishment and more on what's happening to Teddy and others...bleakly funny...with her excellent new book, Atkinson reveals just how admirable such an ordinary man's life can be’
‘Engrossing...convincing and moving...I doubt that Atkinson's readers will be disappointed’
‘Subtly fine…Ms Atkinson’s artistry…is marvellously delicate and varied…Devastating’
New York Times
‘This book is particularly lovely and melancholy...one of those writers that really can make you weep on one page and laugh on the next... She just has such a vast humanity for her characters’
‘Heartbreaking...an ambitious, sensitive and beautifully written novel by one of our most gifted storytellers’
‘Kate Atkinson just keeps getting better…A God in Ruins is a stunner…I laughed out loud…this bleak and beautiful book…Atkinson’s genre-bending novels have garnered critical praise, but nothing on the order of a Rushdie, or even an Ian McEwan. A God in Ruins should change that’
‘The tender exploration of themes of family, love and loss contribute to the impact of this story that, like Life After Life, is beautifully written, stunningly constructed, and will linger long in the memory. Superb’
‘As ever, Kate Atkinson is adept at ferreting her way into the minds of unlovely characters until you feel you know and understand them...While this is a tale of a life spared, the tone is one of elegy’
‘Magnificent...a novel that takes its place in the line of powerful works about young men and war, stretching from Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage to Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk’
‘A sprawling, unapologetically ambitious saga that tells the story of post-war Britain through the microcosm of a single family, and you remember what a big, old-school novel can do...especially impressive’
New York Times Book Review
‘If you were blown away by Life After Life,you’ll be dazzled by this companion piece…an extraordinary tour de force’
Woman & Home
‘Atkinson follows up her Costa Award-winning Life After Life with a dazzling novel about the genteel Todd family… The narrative is less slippery, but no less compelling’
‘As finely crafted as Life After Life…Having spun one great novel out of second, third and 50th chances, she’s spun another out of the fact that in reality, we only get one’
‘A riveting exploration of the complexities of family life’
‘Atkinson is really quite brilliant at the tragi-comic...If Life After Life was all about do-overs, A God in Ruins presents the opposite, consistently reminding us of the limitations of one life and one life only’
‘An engrossing read by any standards. One that kept me up late at night to discover what would happen next’
‘Atkinson’s novel does indeed deserve to be taken seriously because it interrogates – as the best war novels do – what happens when the fighting stops’
Times Literary Supplement
‘A novel for people who love novels’
‘Powerful …There are glimpses of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Ian McEwan’s Atonement….But most poignantly, this is a sweeping, all-consuming novel that finds its way into your bloodstream and writes off your Sunday afternoon’
‘True to form, this novel also has the most spectacular and heart-wrenching twist in its ending…[which] falls like a guillotine, a novelist exercising her ferocious powers….A God in Ruins requires us to think about our relationship with fictional characters as searchingly as Life After Life did, in an exceptional fusion of high design and riveting, humane characterisation’
‘Offers us one of art’s great consolations: the tremendous beauty of her carefully chosen words’
Sydney Morning Herald
‘Nothing short of a masterpiece. Elegantly structured and beautifully told...Characteristically perceptive and poignant, like its predecessor it also gives a vivid and often thrilling account of life during the second world war’
Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train
‘As beguilingly written as anything coming from the hand of Atkinson’
‘A complex and realistic exploration of how conflict changes humanity…[Teddy] is the God in Ruins. He is the everyman in ruins, his life’s potential cut short not by death, like Ursula’s,but by experience – and the horrors of war’
‘Tender, moving, caustic, and, at times, brilliantly funny…A God in Ruins is billed as a companion to Life After Life. Really, though, it stands alone in achievement. It’s fiction at its best’
New York Daily News
‘A novel so sublime I would nominate it to represent all books in the Art Olympics. The afterword deserves a literary prize all to itself. It is even better than Life After Life’
‘A staggeringly gorgeous book, offering through the story of one small, good, imperfect life, the chance to grieve and cherish so many more’
‘Beautifully wrought, deeply felt.’