Horrors Between Heaven and Earth

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A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

Many novels have been written around the travails of war (and this year, for some reason, I’ve read quite a few of them), the way war changes persons, but rarely changes their families. Atkinson attempts to depict this unchangeability in A God in Ruins, and while she focuses on one of the most horrid aspects of modern warfare, the carpet bombing of Germany during WWII by the British RAF, the picture she builds of family life surrounding that era comes up lacking. Her characters are vivid, sometimes combative in their own right, but despite having clearly modeled this book after Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there’s little real drama between her characters. This, considering a final look at her main character, Teddy Todd, which she confesses all too late is a novelist’s cheap shot.

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The story is the overarching life of the Todd family: Teddy and his sister Ursula, Teddy’s wife Nancy, their daughter Viola, and her children, Sunny and Bertie, as well as other ancillary figures. Viola is a self-serving bitch, her daughter Bertie ends up a novelist, and Sunny a yoga proponent. But the most vivid aspect of Atkinson’s story here is the very graphic picture drawn of the RAF bomber flights over Germany, the tight-knit crews that sometimes don’t even know one another’s names. Her portrait of these crews is one of twentieth century cannon fodder, these planes and crews thrown mercilessly against the wall of war. Some will eventually reach their targets and firebomb faceless German combatants and innocent civilians: this is the modern face of war-complete destruction done remotely of a nation and an attempted annihilation of its people. Teddy has been a somewhat legendary pilot, surviving into his third tour of duty in these flights, only to finally be shot down.

But what can we make of Atkinson’s final trickery? She’s making a statement, I think, about history itself, of how fictive it eventually is in its essence. Of how we glorify war and tend to refrain from demanding responsibility for it.

Her writing style here is terse, abrupt, particularly in narrative. Her narrator is omniscient and cynical, even gossipy, which tends to diminish the impact of family interactions and distances the reader somewhat from her characters. Despite these flaws, and its initial glacial pace, the book will eventually draw you in, and the impact will leave you inspired.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

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