A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (abandoned)

[I read the first 120-odd pages, wrote about those, then read about another 60 before giving up. I’ve written in detail about what I managed to get through.]

27 February 2016
1944 – 1925 – 1980 – 1947 – 1939…
…which aren’t the full titles. And there’s a little interlude after 1925 for a chapter of The Adventures of Augustus, the Just William pastiche that Atkinson invented for Izzie in Life After Life. A lot of this novel is recycled from that previous one, including, so far, all the characters born before the Second World War. This time they aren’t locked into an unending cycle of a life cut short and then begun all over again. Atkinson has selected one of the 30 or 40 alternative lives that we get in Life After Life (or perhaps she just selects the best bits of several – how would I know?) and stuck with it. In the earlier novel it was variations of Ursula’s incident-strewn life that we followed. This time it’s mainly that of Ursula’s lovable younger brother, Teddy.

This being a Kate Atkinson novel, it still has to have a gimmick. Not only does the narrative leap backwards or forwards for the next long chapter, so that in 1939 we already know that Teddy, having survived the war, will eventually become a loveable grandfather. Atkinson, from time to time, will also disrupt the chronology of a particular chapter. 1925, a day in the life of Teddy as a child, contains information about things that will happen much later in his own life and the lives of his siblings. It means that the reader very often knows things that the characters don’t – including, in several crucial cases, whether they live a long life. We know, for instance, that Teddy’s wife Nancy will not survive into old age. We also know, after having met their only child Viola in adulthood, that she had loved her mother more than her father – and we can be pretty sure that future chapters will explore those relationships further.

It makes for a weird disruption of another relationship, between the reader and the characters. I find it alienating to be in the company of an omniscient narrator who insists on reminding me of her status as an insider. She drops in little snippets of information, usually about the characters’ futures, that reduce them to specimens living their little lives in an artificial environment of the author’s design. It feels arbitrary because, crucially, I don’t trust Atkinson as a novelist. So I don’t really care what happens to the characters, and rarely believe the lives she makes up for them. Often I give a kind of inward snort of disbelief, and I’ve already been tempted to give up several times.

But this isn’t about me, and I should tell you some of the storylines that Atkinson has invented for her hapless creations. I say ‘invented’, but often I feel that what Atkinson does as an author is trawl through history and other authors’ work for ready-made plots. 1944 has the brave pilot waving goodbye to the farmer’s daughter in the distance, not knowing (as we do) that this will be his last flight. 1925 is an expanded version of an incident in Life After Life, in which Atkinson borrows from AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book for the idea of an aunt who ‘steals’ a boy’s experiences in order to write a novel that will make her more than enough money to live on. The boy hates and resents it, just as in Byatt’s novel… but I’ve already described that in what I wrote about Life After Life.

The pacifist, mythologising, outdoor-based children’s organisation Teddy joins is also straight out of Byatt’s novel. In Teddy’s case, it leaves him with a lifelong sense of guilt about the civilians killed in his 70-odd bombing raids over Germany. We also hear about Nancy, the girl next door who is Teddy’s main reason for joining the local branch, and about Sylvie, Teddy’s mother, not going through with her plan to consummate an adulterous relationship in a London hotel. We’d seen her leaving the hotel in Life After Life, and Atkinson had let us believe the worst. It’s another alienating device – or another of Atkinson’s endless games. We never know whether we’re getting the whole story.

I nearly gave up in 1980. Uniquely, so far, the main focus for the chapter is not Teddy but his grown-up daughter, Viola. Atkinson has decided to make her comically useless in everything she ever does. (I’m only guessing that it’s supposed to be comical.) After a childhood in which her father seems to have done nothing but ensure a secure future for her she throws it all away, at some unnamed ‘Brutalist’ concrete university – can’t you just hear the sneer? – for a man as useless as she is. They end up living in a parody of a hippie commune deep in rural Devon, and… I really can’t be bothered with it. After the philandering not-husband leaves her and their two children on a beach assuming he must have drowned, she finally gives up. The chapter ends with her, and the children with their silly hippie names, knocking on her father’s door. She’s never appreciated him despite his constant helpfulness, but he seems pleased to see them. ‘Viola, what a wonderful surprise.’ How we laughed.

1947 – a date chosen by Atkinson, I guess, for its famously hard winter – sees Teddy and Nancy living together. Between this chapter and the one that follows, 1939, Teddy’s War, we get the arc of this particular relationship. There’s affection there, but Teddy isn’t sure about love. She’s the clever one, with a doctorate in maths (from Cambridge, I think – the provenance of the university is always important in these two novels, as it was in Byatt’s). After university – Oxford, obviously, although I don’t think he completed his postgraduate degree – he had preposterous ideas of escaping the dull future mapped out for him. He will be a working poet, and actually moves to France. Sylvie manages to sabotage this after a few months, and he is only saved from the tedium of his father’s bank by the outbreak of war. On that very day, he intends to propose to Nancy… but her mother prevents him: Nancy is suffering from an unexpected case of whooping-cough (or whatever) and her mother thinks it would be bad for Teddy to go near. She doesn’t know that he’s already caught it following their night together two days before. How we laughed, again.

Are we nearly there yet? Stuff happens but, for some unaccountable reason, not his proposal to Nancy. (Maybe we’ll find out why in some chapter yet to come. As if I care. We already know that Nancy has spent her war as – guess – a code-breaker at Bletchley Park. Where else would she go?) His illness delays his training – I don’t know why I’m telling you this – and, one way and another, his war doesn’t start properly until 1942. Bombing raids, capture in Germany, late return to England in 1945. That’s when they finally get married and decide to become teachers. And move to Yorkshire, probably so that Atkinson, a Yorkshirewoman, won’t have to do too much research.

Nancy is a brilliant teacher, but Teddy is terrible. Only a lucky chance – a broken-down car, an event Atkinson has already used in 1980 to show Viola’s man’s uselessness – gives him a get-out. He’s just walked out of his second-rate school and there, helpless before an open car-bonnet, is the owner and editor of the local features magazine. Viola’s father isn’t useless – yes, Kate, we get it – and this, we now learn, is why 1947 opens with him reading something to Nancy. It’s another pastiche – Atkinson loves pastiches – of exactly the sort of country diary column he would be asked to write. (Scoop. That’s the novel that contains the most famous country diarist in English Literature.)

And… it gives Atkinson the chance to sprinkle in the other things she loves in these two novels, literary references. Teddy is hopeless, trying to be too clever. Atkinson likes to make little nods to the great authors, but she’s careful to put them in the mouths of her characters. The pastiche of Just William is Izzie’s, the overwrought literary essay is Teddy’s… but usually it’s Ursula who gives her younger brother just the right quotation or corrects some error of his. He looks up to her in this, just as Nancy is the one he looks to for common sense and logic. Does he always need to have someone to look up to? Not his father, a man everybody loved but very dull. Not Maurice, the shadowy elder brother whose war is spent in the higher reaches of Whitehall. His daughter doesn’t look up to anyone after the death of her beloved mother. Is this a novel about lives that are essentially unfulfilled?

1 March
1993 and most of 1951
…and that’s as far as I’m going with it. I very, very rarely give up on novels (three or four in the last eight years), but… but what? I’m beginning to feel more than a little disgusted by an author who squanders what talent she has on nonsense like this. She just doesn’t try hard enough. What finally made me give up was the confirmation, following a broad hint dropped earlier, that the terminally useless Viola is a published novelist whose work is popular enough to be adapted for television. I’ve already been complaining about how Atkinson always goes for the easy option to move on her characters’ stories – children’s author, bomber pilot, Bletchley code-breaker – but this is just stupid. Perhaps it’s supposed to be funny – the novels are versions of Viola’s own life, with her own thinly-disguised persona as the long-suffering heroine – but they might also be Atkinson’s knowing little nod to the reader that anybody can be an author. Perhaps. But all it does is make me feel terminally bored, long before the half-way point.

1993 is about Teddy being harassed into sheltered housing by the terminally selfish Viola. As usual, Atkinson writes about what she knows: there’s nobody in her generation (or mine) who hasn’t had experience of the ageing parent or other older relative who can no longer quite cope. Of course, Viola is forcing the issue when Teddy is still a highly capable 79-year-old, so Atkinson manages to make even this little scenario seem implausible. I really can’t imagine the terminally lazy Viola (she’s terminally everything bad in Atkinson’s presentation of her) going through the hassle before she really, really has to. Maybe Atkinson has some deeper motive in mind. As if I care. Along the way, during the packing away of Teddy’s things – you can imagine Viola’s lack of tact – we see that Sunny (originally named Sun, geddit?) isn’t so bad. Not great, but not beyond hope. And, in the background, Bertie the daughter (Moon Roberta, and you can see why she refused her first name as soon as she could speak) is bright and hard-working enough to have got a place at university. Guess where. Go on, you know how this author shows approval of characters who are clever enough for her to like.

The sheltered housing is in one of those complexes that Atkinson knows as well as everybody else, and it’s a symphony in magnolia and the sort of prints they always have on the walls. She makes it interesting – as if – by giving the ‘warden’ (cue Teddy’s predictable thoughts on imprisonment) a comedy Birmingham accent. Only minor characters are working class – even the useless father of Viola’s children is from a titled family – so Atkinson can be as snobbish as she likes about them. And she’s just as contemptuous of anybody who isn’t as clever as she is. She has an easy dig at middle class parents who pay to send their children to Nancy’s next school because they aren’t clever enough to pass the exams. It’s the biggest sin in Atkinson’s eyes. Viola, helped tirelessly by Teddy, got into some second-rate university, and after squandering her time there got the worst possible degree.

And so on, and on, and on. I’ve decided that I’m never going to read another novel by this woman as long as I live.