A God in Ruins Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 44-page guide for “A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 15 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Sacrifice and Secrets.
A God in Ruins is a historical fiction novel by Kate Atkinson. Published in 2015, it is known as a companion piece to Atkinson’s prior novel, Life After Life, and contains many of the same characters. Set against the backdrop of World War II, A God in Ruins examines themes of sacrifice, secrets, family, and the way that war transforms people.
The events of the novel unfold between 1925 and 2012, and each chapter takes place in a different year. The story is not told chronologically and jumps back and forth in time, sometimes even within the same page or section. The story is told by an unnamed, omniscient narrator, who occasionally breaks away from the characters to provide information that the character could not know.
The main character and chief protagonist is Teddy Todd. He is the husband of Nancy, father to Viola, and grandfather to Bertie and Sunny. Teddy served as a bomber pilot for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. Throughout his life, he is haunted by his memories of the war, although he rarely shares his experiences and is seen as mysterious by his children and grandchildren. His Aunt Izzie writes a series of books based on Teddy as a child, which he resents, given that he does not believe that the Augustus character from her books is like him at all. Teddy joins the war effort out of a desire for adventure and begins participating in dangerous bombing raids with his flight squadron. Eventually he realizes that the war has erased his identity, and he is no longer able to see himself as anything but a fighter pilot. He continues to volunteer for missions even after he has completed three tours of duty and no longer has an obligation to do so, because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself.
After the war ends, Teddy marries Nancy, a girl who lived nearby when they were children and whom he has known his whole life. They have a pleasant life together, but Nancy will eventually die of brain cancer in the 1960s. When her suffering grows too great, she asks Teddy to help her die. He is reluctant and tormented by the request, but when she is at her worst point, he smothers her with a pillow. Viola, their daughter, witnesses this act but never mentions it. Viola doesn’t know that Nancy wanted help dying, and as the story progresses, her contempt for her father—and the reasons for it—grow more obvious. Viola has a troubled life without a foundation. She marries a bipolar man named Dominic, who takes them and their children, Bertie and Sunny, to live on a commune. Dominic is hit by a train while under the influence of drugs. Viola abandons her children, who then go to live with Teddy. Sunny eventually becomes a famous yoga teacher living in Bali. Bertie marries happily and has two children and a successful marketing career. Both attribute their stability to their grandfather’s support and love.
The final chapter of the book delivers a shocking twist. Teddy, near death, has a memory of his final mission, on March 30, 1944. He remembers handing his parachute to a crew member after their plane was too badly damaged to fly. The men escape, but Teddy goes down with the plane and dies. If this had happened, the lives of the other characters would have been different, and his children and grandchildren never would have been born. The author describes this as the “falling house of fiction.” By illustrating the lives of the characters in such lengthy, meticulous detail, Atkinson shows the consequences of a life that is lost to war. Everything Teddy’s family goes through, and all of their descendants, would have been lost in the alternate reality where Teddy had not survived his final mission. The ending is ambiguous, which allows the reader to ponder the costs of war and the author’s intentions in this narrative choice.