A God in Ruins Summary

Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins

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A God in Ruins Summary

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A God in Ruins is a 2015 historical fiction novel by British writer Kate Atkinson. The book, her ninth novel, follows the younger brother of the protagonist of Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life. She refers to A God in Ruins as a “companion piece,” rather than a sequel, to Life After Life. This companion piece is about the life of a man who served as an RAF pilot during World War II, but the events are not told in a chronological manner. Atkinson is the author of more than ten novels and has won multiple awards for her work.

The protagonist of the novel is Teddy Todd, the younger brother of Ursula Todd, the main character of Life After Life. The story is narrated from several perspectives: an omniscient narrator, and Teddy’s two grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny. The events of the novel unfold between 1925 and 2012, and each chapter takes place in a different year.

The beginning of the novel shows Teddy as a bomber pilot for the RAF during World War II, but quickly moves back in time to his childhood, sometimes contrasting his memories with events in the lives of his children and grandchildren. Teddy’s own childhood is idyllic, spent at the Todd family’s country house, Fox Corner. The one difficulty of his early years is the frustration he feels when his Aunt Izzy visits. She insists on asking him detailed questions as a kind of research for her novels. She is the author of a famous children’s book series about a boy named Augustus and his exploits in a fictionalized version of Fox Corner.

When Teddy is older, and World War II begins, he is eager to sign up for service. His previous job was dull, and he longed for adventure. During the war, Teddy bonds with his crew. They must trust each other with their lives, and because of that life-sustaining bond they begin to think and act as one, as if they are all part of one living being.

They confront the death and the destruction of war every day. Teddy has difficulty justifying some of his missions: bomber pilots are asked to target innocent civilian lives. Despite his misgivings, he continues his missions. He serves three tours, defying the odds of death each time. The risks are high, but he always manages to come back home to his family unscathed. Others begin to compete for a place on his crew because they hope they’ll share in his luck. On Teddy’s last flight, he bombs Nuremberg.

When the war ends, Teddy returns home for good and marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy. They have a daughter named Viola, but their story isn’t as lucky as Teddy’s time in the RAF. In 1960, Nancy is diagnosed with brain cancer. She wants to end her own life before she deteriorates completely and asks Teddy to help her. He agrees and carries out her wishes, suffocating her with a pillow over her face. He does not know that Viola watches him as he kills her mother, not understanding that he is acting on Nancy’s wishes.

Viola is disturbed by what she has seen but tells no one. Though Teddy works hard to raise her as a single father, she resents him, believing him a cold-blooded murderer. Viola becomes self-destructive, eager to lash out and unable to seek out healthy relationships. As Viola matures, she makes her contempt for her father clearer.

When Viola is an adult, she lives with a man named Dominic in a commune called Adam’s Acre. Dominic is bipolar and unstable, but Viola stays with him. They have a daughter, Bertie, and a son, Sunny. However, she tires of raising them, and passes them off to Teddy to raise instead.

Bertie and Sunny love their grandfather as their mother does not. They are relieved to find stability and affection in their new home, though they are deeply affected by their parents’ abandonment as well. In time, Bertie becomes a successful marketing executive and has a husband and two children of her own. Sunny, still feeling the trauma of abandonment, searches for peace and enlightenment. This takes him to Bali, where he becomes a world-famous yoga instructor. Viola and Sunny have a small reconciliation when she visits him in Bali.

Then, in the final chapter, the narrative takes a surprising turn. Teddy thinks back to the final flight of his RAF career. He remembers handing his own parachute to a crew member. He himself goes down with his plane. His plane goes down in flames over the ocean. Every event following March 30, 1944 has been imaginary, which the narrative describes as a “falling house of fiction.” There were no children, no grandchildren. Three members of Teddy’s crew survived but were taken to a German POW camp for the duration of the war. Ursula and Nancy grieved for Teddy on V.E. Day, and his mother overdosed on sleeping pills shortly afterwards.

The last line of the novel is, “And when all else is gone, Art remains. Even Augustus.” Then, a short excerpt from one of Aunt Izzie’s stories follows, interrupted by a conversation between Teddy and Ursula that ends with Teddy requesting to “stop reading.”

Critic James Walton called the ending of A God in Ruins “one of the most devastating twists in recent fiction.” It received widespread praise in reviews, though some argued this “companion piece” didn’t live up to the promise of its predecessor, Life After Life. It won the 2015 Costa Book Award.