This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves a skeleton of what was, what might have been, and what might be.
What begins as banding together to fight an outside threat, which we deem noble, descends into horror and immorality. Teddy, the RAF pilot, experiences so much terror and senseless loss of life that his humanity is reduced to ruins. He has only the most primal desire to survive. All the while, he is participating in a bombing campaign targeting civilians, unknowingly, though perhaps he begins to realize it at some point.
The United Kingdom’s Bomber Command decided to hit civilian targets in Germany in order to demoralize the population and turn them against the Nazi government. After the war, RAF pilots and crew learned of their true missions. My father was a tail gunner and radio operator on a U. S. Air Force B24 crew stationed in Norwich, England. He would have loved to read about Teddy landing at Shipdham air base and the hearty welcome he and his crew received. For his part, my father’s missions included some cities, and he did know there were people in the factories. As with Teddy, he saw bombers and fighters go down, and the fires in the cities below.
Some at the time and in the following generations criticized the bombing of civilians, as Teddy’s daughter does. Whether Atkinson means to say that UK society (and European and American society) began to disintegrate as a result of the brute realization that people are capable of cold, callous mass atrocities, she does depict a society in chaos, with pockets of nostalgia for days gone by, following the war. This nostalgia is for a time of peace and innocence. But the nostalgic picture is fabricated, as shown in the childhood fantasy stories written by a woman who shuts away the terrible brutality she experienced in World War 1. The post WW2 generation has few of these nostalgic reference points, and those it does have are undermined by the well-documented record of man’s inhumanity.
Teddy’s perfectly unlovable daughter is over the top when it comes to being judgmental, not to mention, selfish and irrational. Atkinson excels at dark humor, giving irony a chance to alchemize cynicism. While Teddy tries to live a decent life, having learned the value of humility and kindness, he is depicted as the skeleton of what was and what should have been. Atkinson paints a damning picture of his daughter and connects it to pre-war progressive social experiments which continue in the form of drugs and communes. These are treated as ridiculous, wrong-headed acts against the time-honored traditions and societal norms that worked – except they did not work, as the world went from one inferno to another.
Both looking back and looking forward engender a hope for the marvel we are at our best, what we yearn for, what we should be able to cherish and continue.
Besides the political and social views, the family and individuals appear in either fuzzy sentimental or critical, severe lights. Teddy is a romantic traumatized by war. He appears to be weak to his daughter, to whom his kindness comes across as an attempt to manipulate her into a shadow life of his childhood. This shadow life is very real to him and gives him strength. Since the war, he has a sense of invincibility, and a fatalism, which makes him aloof. Without much guidance, his daughter and her children slowly mature. Their attempts at banding together with others fall short, until near the end of the book. Atkinson then throws in a twist, one that’s been done before; however, the point she makes with this twist is one that cannot be made too often.
Atkinson deserves credit for her imagination in telling a difficult tale of the personal, social, and spiritual damages of war.
A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, publisher Little Brown and Company