Bombs Blast And Time Marches On In 'A God In Ruins'

Jun 8, 2015
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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Kate Atkinson's 2013 novel "Life After Life" won critical praise for its achievement of being both a sweeping historical novel and an ingeniously constructed account of one woman's rather bumpy life's journey. Now, Atkinson has written what she calls a companion to "Life After Life." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of "A God In Ruins," which is also the selection for the "Morning Edition" Book Club.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: On the 70th anniversary of V-E Day this year, a landmark restaurant here in Washington, D.C., invited all World War II veterans to come in and eat free. That restaurant later posted a picture of the vets who showed up. They were spry and smiling, and there were three of them - just three. As commentators keep reminding us, soon there won't be any World War II vets left to tell the rest of us firsthand what that war was like.

Kate Atkinson's magnificent new novel, "A God In Ruins," both mourns the passing of the World War II generation and offers the consolation of fiction as a way to vicariously enter into the experience of the war. Atkinson is tough to categorize. Her work ranges from straight detective tales to elaborately plotted, often metaconscious literary fiction, such as "Behind The Scenes At The Museum," which won the 1995 Whitbread Award. Even her naughtiest narratives, though, are distinguished by their sense of compassion.

For instance, in "Life After Life," her best-selling 2013 novel, Atkinson tells the story of Ursula Todd, an Englishwoman born in 1910 who dies, repeatedly. In succession, Ursula is murdered, commits suicide, falls victim to influenza and the Blitz, and then she's reborn over and over. Ursula's sequential rebootings bring home the contingencies of life, the relative powerlessness we all share in the face of larger forces like war. Atkinson calls "A God In Ruins" a companion novel to "Life After Life," although I don't think you have to have read the earlier book to appreciate this one.

In "A God In Ruins," Atkinson has written 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 Halftime Walk." "A God In Ruins" spotlights Ursula's younger brother, Teddy, and his service as an RAF bomber pilot during World War II. In stop-and-start fashion, the novel hops around in perspective and era from Teddy's golden, between-the-wars childhood to his grim fadeout as a nonagenarian in this century. Atkinson's nonlinear storyline enhances the poignancy of time passing. For instance, during the Blitz, a young Teddy, on leave, recklessly spends his money on drinks and a hotel room because after all, as the saying goes, there are no pockets in shrouds.

A couple of pages on, however, we're in the 1990s and Teddy's grandson, who's cleaning out his house and moving him to assisted living, complains that, granddad's got so much crap. Likewise, in the blink of an eye, the goldfish that Teddy, as a young father, wins at an agricultural fair for his cranky daughter is prefigured in Teddy's membership in the so-called Goldfish Club of bomber pilots who ditch their planes into the sea. Much later on, Teddy will think of himself as a goldfish in captivity at his assisted living residence.

Atkinson fluidly executes these chronological loop-de-loops, leaving a reader to marvel at that most banal of epiphanies - how fast life goes by. That is, how fast life goes by if one is lucky enough to enjoy a normal lifespan. Most of those RAF crewmen were not. In an afterward, Atkinson reminds us that the average age of these men - boys, really - all volunteers, was 22. Less than half of them survived. Drawing on firsthand accounts of those airmen's experiences, Atkinson writes extended battle scenes that bring Teddy and his crew into the thick of things, from bombing missions over Germany to freak engine trouble to Titanic thunderstorms. Any of which might prove fatal.

Atkinson's skills as a suspense writer serve her well here. It's not 'till the final pages of the novel that we readers learn who makes it through the war and who doesn't. As powerfully as it conveys life-and-death struggles in the air, "A God In Ruins" also compels readers to recognize the courage of those who survived to quietly pick up the pieces and graciously attend, in ever dwindling numbers, memorial ceremonies and veterans' dinners.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "A God In Ruins" by Kate Atkinson.

Tomorrow, journalist Nisid Hajari talks about the legacy of the 1947 partition of India that created Pakistan. He'll discuss the violence that surrounded that partition, why those tensions persist today and how they've led to Pakistan's support of extremist groups like the Taliban. Hajari's new book is "Midnight's Furies." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.