When I was a child, passenger flights were still rare, so if one saw a plane in the sky, it was still most likely an RAF plane, and people would still look up into the sun, smile at each other, and say, “one of ours.” Ten years after VE day, the relief was still palpable. The skies were once more benign. An acquaintance of mine told me that probably the most terrifying moment of his life was as a child in Wolverhampton watching bombs falling. My mother also told me of her memories of the bombing of Coventry. The evening sky of her Worcestershire village was aflame like a strange sun setting in the east. The next morning, they learnt what had happened. “It looks like a bomb site” was a cliché I heard often applied to any place out of control, a mess.
I knew what bomb sites were. I saw them from the train on the family pilgrimages to the Isle of Man: a train to Birmingham, another to Liverpool for the ferry. I usually got a speck of soot in my eye, removed with the corner of my mother’s handkerchief. I often felt sick on the Irish Sea. And as the train passed through the big cities, I looked with wonder at broken buildings, strange black doll houses with their sides removed, wall paper still on the walls of fractured rooms, Rose Bay Willow Herb growing in what might once have been someone’s kitchen: bomb sites. Guernica, Berlin, Coventry, Dresden, London, Rotterdam, Liverpool, Warsaw, Freiberg, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki: the names of cities broken and burnt. To what purpose?
Teddy the central character of A God in Ruins is a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, responsible, no doubt, for numberless deaths. Is he a hero or a monster? His daughter Viola is one of the protestors at Greenham Common. How widely points of view differ on the morality of bombing cities. Is it tactically necessary or merely cruelly expedient? Does bombing civilians result in surrender or build determined resistance to the aggressor? The fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain were lauded as “the few”; Bomber Command received a memorial only three years ago. Fifty-five thousand five hundred and seventy-three (55,573) RAF bomber crew members lost their lives during World War II.
Spanning the last two thirds of the twentieth century and reaching our own times with the Queen’s recent jubilee, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins has been described as a sequel to her earlier work Life After Life, A God in Ruins is more of a parallel to the first than a continuation. In this exercise in point of view, this time Teddy’s rather than Ursula’s, Atkinson deals once again in the possibilities of lives, with conflicting loyalties and responsibilities, secrets and lies, and with the interconnectedness of generations. It is an elegiac novel about the broken and the emotionally maimed and about the possibility of regeneration, redemption, and reconciliation. It is a novel drawing attention to the very creative power of fiction, and to the power of the writer to create and also to erase. Fiction in its very createdness demands we consider the nature of truth. Fiction offers us different ways of seeing, of knowing. There is always another point of view.
It was this celebration of fiction that I found most interesting about Life After Life (see July 2013 post), and the intellectual satisfaction I received from the earlier novel alleviated the rather intense melancholy aroused by that work. The emotional impact of A God in Ruins is stronger. The novel evokes compassion, empathy, and sorrow. The casualties of war continue into the second and third generations.
About seven to ten years ago, my mother and I visited the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. My mother spent a very long time in a display devoted to the history of the Lancaster bomber. She sat at least twice through what I remember as a twenty minute film and came out a little damp around the eyes. There probably is not one British person of her generation who did not have some personal connection, however slight, with someone in the RAF, or, as I suspect in my mother’s case, in the RCAF, probably someone who never came back. The absences created by war may be covered but they are never filled.
In photograph albums from Auckland to Hamburg, Tokyo to Vancouver, Tucson to Cologne, pictures of young men in the uniforms of their countries fade, and their great-children or great nephews and nieces wonder what the stories are behind the pictures. Or perhaps all concrete records are gone; only fractured, insecure memories remain.
And still, we bomb: the aerial ballet between the bomber raining desolation on the unknown people below while desperately trying to avoid the predatory searchlights that make the bombers themselves targets for fighter planes and missiles still plays out against its background of fire. And the arguments remain the same. Does nothing change our apparently insatiable appetite for destruction? And is there consolation that such barbarity can result in compassion and even heroism?
Atkinson introduces this novel with a quotation from Emerson’s Nature: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” But how, asks the novel, can we determine innocence and guilt? And how do we live with our own or others’ guilt? Is it enough that should we meet “difficulty or danger,” then, as Baden-Powell suggests in his Scouting for Boys, (also quoted at the beginning of A God in Ruins), . . . [we should not] avoid it or fear it”?
The novel doesn’t answer those questions. Perhaps they are unanswerable. Nevertheless, it challenges us to try. Perhaps it is enough to at least aspire to innocence as Teddy resolves “he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all he could do” (282).