The second novel about a Bomber Command pilot I’ve read in the space of as many months and both A God in Ruins and The Way Back to Florence have turned out to be fabulous enthralling if very different novels. The pilot is in this novel is Teddy, brother of Life after Life’s Ursula. The novel spans his long life and offsets and hones it with the lives of his daughter and his two grandchildren.
As ever with Atkinson there are layers of artifice in this novel – on one level, her novels are generally about fiction itself – but unlike Life after Life whose tricks I found gimmicky the artifice here is subtle and as such has greater artistry. Once again we have a family saga spanning four generations with a central figurehead acting as a kind of cypher through which the history is decrypted. And once again Atkinson’s brilliant command of structure is in evidence. She deftly shifts the narrative from one decade to another and back again without sacrificing the dramatic tension.
A God in Ruins exudes a similar nostalgia for the pre-war past as Brideshead Revisited. Atkinson clearly feels a great deal of affection for the old world modesty and self-effacement of Teddy – brilliantly offset by the bullying egotism and blinkered narcissism of his gloriously obnoxious daughter Viola (one of the best literary villains of past few years!). The war is depicted as a time of simple and stolen pleasures, of camaraderie and even excitement (Atkinson gives her characters very glamorous wartime occupations: Teddy’s wife Nancy is a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, a sister is an ATA pilot and a friend a female SOE agent); post-war, all the way to today, is depicted as a muddle of self-indulgence and misguided pursuits of utopia. Fox’s Wood, Teddy’s childhood home, is the utopia of the novel – everything eventually seems to lead back there as if all that followed, most obviously the war, was a fatal cosmic error in navigation. “The war had been a great chasm and there could be no going back to the other side, to the people they were before.”
Atkinson has a habit of being very hard on her female characters, especially on her mothers. Rarely do they like their children, let alone love them. Viola is her most monstrous mother to date. And as such provides most of the book’s best humour. At times we’re left asking ourselves if the sacrifice of all those young men was worth it if it spawned monsters like Viola. She also pokes fun at many contemporary pursuits (care homes, marketing jargon, courses in self-discovery, dietary fads) and includes some self-satire when Viola becomes a successful novelist.