It’s been such a long time since I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life that I realized a few chapters in that I was slightly confusing certain aspects about the family with Kate Morton’s novel The Lake House. Mostly just birthing order and Teddy’s age – I thought he was the youngest and conceived after his father’s return from World War I when he was actually born in 1914 and not the last sibling. However, I definitely remembered that he was Ursula’s favorite sibling, his parents’ favorite child, and that many of the scenarios of Life After Life involved Teddy dying in the war, but in one, he survived the crash and finished the war in a POW camp before returning home.
A God in Ruins tells the story of a Teddy that survived. I don’t read as much literary fiction as I used to, and one of the reasons might be because of characters like Viola. Between her initial introduction in her PoV chapter and a later chapter from an elderly Teddy’s perspective, Teddy’s daughter is a horrible person. I mean, she isn’t a serial killer or anything, but nothing is ever her fault, she blames everyone else for her problems, she has no empathy for her father or children, she is entitled, money grubbing, and acts as if people demand so much of her when it is the opposite. In other words, she is entirely realistic. I have reached the point where if I like a character and Teddy is so likable, I don’t want his/her middle age to be plagued by a terrible relationship with his/her children, and that seems to happen all too often in literary fiction. However, despite this initial hesitation upon meeting Viola, I found myself drawn into the novel.
This novel is not a traditional, linear story of Teddy’s life and jumps between decades from chapter to chapter, including chapters from the viewpoints of his immediate family (wife, daughter, grandchildren). Even within chapters, Atkinson will make comments about events to happen later or allow Teddy to drift into tangents and remembrances of the past. It’s an interesting approach because at various times the reader knows both more and less than Teddy – having seen the future, it is easy to guess at motivations for certain situations while still not knowing the story behind people Teddy refers to or all of his experiences leading up to that point. Sometimes later revelations provide new insights, allowing a more forgiving view of characters one had already judged. The novel’s lack if linearity made me appreciate these lines even more:
“But time was an artificial construct, wasn’t’ it? Zeno’s arrow staggering and stuttering its way to some fictional end point in the future. In reality that arrow had no target, they weren’t on a journey and there was no final destination where everything would fall transcendently into place, the mysteries revealed. They were all just lost souls, wandering the halls, gathering silently at the end. No promised land, no paradise regained.”
“This was when people still believed in the dependable nature of time – a past, a present, a future – the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on.”
It may also be the personal timing but much of the early part of novel struck me as a look at expectations, how people give up opportunities, settle, and never reach the full potential everyone saw in them at the beginning. It is easy to read a chapter of Teddy as child and think he has everything ahead of him but then once the novel shows how his life ends, it is a reminder of how rare it is to step outside convention. After university, Teddy took a gap year to explore England and then France, only to finally give in and accept the cage of working at the bank. The war was an escape opportunity, but after he was back from the war, he once again settled into conventions, marrying his childhood sweetheart, who was never a great passion as much as a beloved best friend.
However, as the novel progresses, I also started wondering, what is a satisfying happy ending? What would I have wanted for Teddy (other than a better relationship with his daughter)? He loves nature, he is the kind and dependable sort but he does not want to be caged, and even before the war, it did not seem like he entirely knew what he wanted to with himself. He ends up in a conventional life, and while there is not great passion, steadiness and companionship may have been more than enough, especially after the upheaval and adventure of being a bomber pilot during the war. In fact, while Teddy himself may not have been able to quite articulate what he wanted, it seems maybe he didn’t need much more than what he ended up with, and that it was mostly perfect for him. Afterall, “he had made a vow, a private promise to the world in long dark watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to be kind, to live a good quiet life …. Even if he could add only a feather to the balance it would be some kind of repayment for being spared.”
The novel also reveals the difficulties of understanding each other, the inability to share crucial experiences with close ones, leading to disconnects at various points. For example, what Teddy interprets as lack of interest during an interaction actually is a moment of extreme interest, to the point that the other character is too emotionally overwhelmed to engage. Due to Teddy’s inability to speak of his war experiences, his wife and daughter both write off some of his choices as “that war stuff,” and Viola especially judges his inability to move on, always finding ways to make him the villain. Speaking of the war stuff, I appreciated the detail Atkinson brought to those sections and the idea of playing the odds and the statistics involved in being a bomber. I know I had seen it mentioned long ago in non-fiction book but since the people interviewed were the survivors, it can be harder to grasp how much pilots and crews didn’t make it back.
While I have mostly been using reading as an escape lately, this novel was a welcome reminder that fictional literature is not simply about boring middle-aged white men in mid-life crisis mode. Throughout his life, Teddy is kind, good and a steady rock for those around him, but this does not prevent him from being interesting, or his life from being poignant. It explores how a life can touch others and how maybe it is enough to be conventional. Well-done fictional literature can illuminate our own lives, help us question our own expectations and desires for ourselves, and provide insights into people and relationships. It reminds us that is okay if we have not found a path to break away from the conventionality of our lives, but that small pleasures can be just as important in a meaningful or satisfying life. The ending of this crushed me more than it should have, and despite my initial hesitation, it pulled me in much more quickly than Life After Life. Ursula was a more difficult protagonist, but it is hard to read about Teddy and not like him and want good things for him, explaining his status as family favorite.