(FYI: There is a spoiler in this review. But I will warn you when to stop reading!)
During the first two days of Kendell's recent hospitalization, he was in that medically-induced coma and on the cooling protocol, which brought his body temperature down to 31.4 degrees in order to preserve the possibility of normal brain function. I alternated wildly—if you asked me what I thought would happen, sometimes I was certain he wasn't coming back, sometimes I was certain he'd be just fine. It was a terrifying 36 hours. Actually, "terrifying" isn't even the right word. It was like...time outside of time. Days spent waiting for uncertain medical outcomes are, to borrow Becky's words, the most boring of alarming time.
You just wait. You just wait for time to pass, and you hope, or you try not to hope, depending.
It's time without any meaning, except for the anxiety and fear, the hoping and not hoping.
Usually I am able to fill empty time by reading, but not those hours. Between texting to keep everyone updated and just being worried, I couldn't keep my mind on a narrative. In fact, one of the nurses (who I have extremely mixed feelings about and will surely blog about again) asked me, when she came into the room and found me texting on my phone again, said "wait, aren't you a librarian? I thought you'd be reading something amazing."
(Actually, I was; I read poetry during those long hours. But "reading poetry" is sort of an invisible activity, certainly not something most people see as amazing. Even though it was so comforting to me.)
Once he was out of his coma and we knew he'd likely be OK, there were still more entire days to spend at the hospital, killing time while we waited for tests and procedures and doctors, but then—the fear of mortality having passed—I could read a novel.
The book I picked out of my enormous pile of library books waiting to be read was Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins. This is a companion novel to Life After Life, a book I adored and continue to think about. Why the WWII ruminations of a RAF pilot as the perfect book to read during my husband's hospital stay? Because you need comfort reading, something familiar, and while death and bombings aren't exactly comforting, the landscape is familiar. I've read so many books about WWII that a new one usually doesn't feel completely new. Plus, I already knew the characters.
Unlike Life After Life, A God in Ruins tells just one story, the narrative of Ursula's little brother Teddy. I'm not spoiling anything when I tell you that it is the story of both his life during the war and his life after surviving the war, a miraculous feat given that only 10% of the RAF pilots who started flying at the beginning actually survived to the end. That sense is also why it was perfect: Teddy's post-war life is a miracle (as Kendell's post-cardiac-arrest life is), and yet he struggles to find something extraordinary to do with it. As his post-war life progresses (the story flips through time, a chapter about his childhood followed by one about his marriage followed by one about the war), with marriage and a family and a career, he discovers that he didn't make it through the war to live an extraordinary life, but a normal one. It felt like a sort of...warning, perhaps, to me, to not be too grandiose in my expectations for why Kendell survived. Maybe he survived just to live his own, normal life, which is also a thing of value.
On some level, Teddy surviving but then finding a normal life is disturbing. All that death and destruction, all the fear and the near misses, only to bring him to a life of mediocrity? But on a different level, that is exactly the point. The point of trying to win the war (if it could be said that anyone "won") was to give people the chance to live normal lives.
(HERE IS WHERE YOU SHOULD STOP READING IF YOU DON'T WANT THE BOOK TO BE SPOILED!!!)
I was absolutely OK with this direction for Teddy's story. I found myself connecting to his life in so many ways, his difficulty connecting with his daughter Viola but his contentment with his granddaughter; his bookish wisdom; his struggle to let go of his writerly ambitions. I was thinking that the point of the book was to explore the ramifications of this question: is an "average," normal life one with any meaning or worth? (Of course it is.)
But then that ending.
That ending came and I confess: it's a risky ending for me. When Ian McEwan did something similar in Sweet Tooth I was annoyed and disappointed, but I loved it when he did it in Atonement. Atwood did in with Blind Assassin and I had to almost immediately re-read it to understand how all the pieces of real/story fit together. Teddy's post-war life turning out to be just an imagined story, a what if (even though of course it's a novel, it's all what if), and the way the characters who were influenced by his life either also vanished into the imaginary ether or lived entirely different lives? Well. It really is the same thing that happened in Life After Life. It broke my heart but it didn't piss me off because I kept expecting some sort of deviation from the normal from the book, based on its predecessor.
It broke my heart because I wanted Teddy to live.
I wanted him to live the rest of his fairly-normal, average life because that was the point, right?
Except—the ending changed the point altogether. The ending truly made it into a novel about the war, about the horribleness of any war and how no one can imagine how utterly altered individual lives and society and the world become because of war. That one life, not happening: that happened so many times, over and over, because of that war and the earlier war and all the wars. It is almost unendurable to think of it.
Everything about this book made me sad. That title! Teddy's pre-war explorations of France and how they couldn't lead to anything because the world itself was going elsewhere. His image of the coast of France: "The coastline seems composed of solid blocks of colour and hot slices of sunshine." The glimpses of Ursula, who is living a life that doesn't exactly match up with any of the ones described in Life After Life. Bertie's "ragbag of loveliness," which is random snippets of lovely writing that she remembers at odd times. (I do this, too. The way we say the world is what we get.) Nancy's piano playing at the end. More than anything, the way it also says something about writing itself, or the act of creating (or Art, as Teddy's mother would've said) and how novelists make characters come to life so that we mourn we they die, even though they never lived, and all in an attempt to make sense of life. A God in Ruins ends by making you aware of how impossible it is to make any sense of life, either how it ends or how it continues, sometimes impossibly.
Art, Teddy believes "should be a source of joy and comfort, of sublimation and of understanding." Books, I believe, sometimes come into our lives at exactly the right time. A God in Ruins did that for me. It was entirely unconnected to the events in my life, and yet it helped me make sense—brought understanding—to the events in my life.
And that is pretty sublime.