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Book excerpt from 'A God in Ruins' by Kate Atkinson

A GOD IN RUINS, by Kate Atkinson (Little,

A GOD IN RUINS, by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown; May 2015). Credit: Little, Brown



"See!" he said. "There -- a lark. A skylark." He glanced up at her and saw that she was looking in the wrong place. "No, over there," he said, pointing. She was completely hopeless.

"Oh," she said at last. "There, I see it! How queer -- what's it doing?"

"Hovering, and then it'll go up again probably." The skylark soared on its transcendental thread of song. The quivering flight of the bird and the beauty of its music triggered an unexpectedly deep emotion in him. "Can you hear it?"

His aunt cupped a hand to an ear in a theatrical way. She was as out of place as a peacock, wearing an odd hat, red like a pillar-box and stuck with two large pheasant tail-feathers that bobbed around with the slightest movement of her head. He wouldn't be surprised if someone took a shot at her. If only, he thought. Teddy was allowed -- allowed himself -- barbaric thoughts as long as they remained unvoiced. ("Good manners," his mother counselled, were "the armour that one must don anew every morning.")

"Hear what?" his aunt said eventually.

"The song," he said, mustering patience. "The skylark's song. It's stopped now," he added as she continued to make a show of listening.

"It might begin again."

"No, it won't. It can't, it's gone. Flown away." He flapped his arms to demonstrate. Despite the feathers in her hat, she clearly knew nothing about birds. Or any animals, for that matter. She didn't even possess a cat. She was indifferent to Trixie, their lurcher, currently nosing her way enthusiastically through the dried-up ditch at the side of the road. Trixie was his most stalwart companion and had been by his side since she was a puppy, when she had been so small that she could squeeze through the front door of his sisters' dolls' house.

Was he supposed to be educating his aunt, he wondered? Was that why they were here? "The lark's known for its song," he said instructively. "It's beautiful." It was impossible to instruct on the subject of beauty, of course. It simply was. You were either moved by it or you weren't. His sisters, Pamela and Ursula, were. His elder brother, Maurice, wasn't. His brother Jimmy was too young for beauty, his father possibly too old. His father, Hugh, had a gramophone recording of "The Lark Ascending" which they sometimes listened to on wet Sunday afternoons. It was lovely but not as lovely as the lark itself. "The purpose of Art," his mother, Sylvie, said -- instructed even -- "is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself." Her own father, Teddy's grandfather, had been a famous artist, dead long ago, a relationship that gave his mother authority on the subject of art. And beauty too, Teddy supposed. All these things -- Art, Truth, Beauty -- had capital letters when his mother spoke about them.

"When the skylark flies high," he continued rather hopelessly to Izzie, "it means it's fine weather."

"Well, one doesn't need a bird to tell one if it's good weather or not, one simply looks about," Izzie said. "And this afternoon is glorious. I adore the sun," she added, closing her eyes and raising her painted face to the skies.

Who didn't, Teddy thought? Not his grandmother perhaps, who led a gloomy drawing-room life in Hampstead, with heavy cotton nets drawn to prevent the light entering the house. Or perhaps to stop the dark escaping.

"The Knights' Code," which he had learned by heart from "Scouting for Boys," a book he frequently turned to in times of uncertainty, even now in his self-exile from the movement, demanded that "Chivalry requireth that youth should be trained to perform the most laborious and humble offices with cheerfulness and grace." He supposed entertaining Izzie was one of those occasions. It was certainly laborious.

He shaded his eyes against the sun and scanned the skies for the skylark. It failed to make a reappearance and he had to make do with the aerial manoeuvres of the swallows. He thought of Icarus and wondered what he would have looked like from the ground. Quite big, he supposed. But Icarus was a myth, wasn't he? Teddy was going to boarding school after the summer holidays and he really must start getting his facts in order. "You will need to be a stoic, old chap," his father advised. "It will be a trial, that's the point of it really, I suppose. Best to keep your head below the parapet," he added. "Neither sink nor float, just sort of paddle about in the middle."

"All the men in the family" went to the school, his Hampstead grandmother said (his only grandmother, Sylvie's mother having died long ago), as if it were a law, written down in ancient times. Teddy supposed his own son would have to go there too, although this boy existed in a future that Teddy couldn't even begin to imagine. He didn't need to, of course, for in that future he had no sons, only a daughter, Viola, something which would be a sadness for him although he never spoke of it, certainly not to Viola, who would have been volubly affronted.

Teddy was taken aback when Izzie unexpectedly started to sing and -- more startling -- do a little dance. "Alouette, gentille alouette." He knew no French to speak of yet and thought she was singing not "gentille" but "jaunty," a word he rather liked. "Do you know that song?" she asked him.


"It's from the war. The French soldiers sang it." The fleeting shadow of something -- sorrow, perhaps -- passed across her features, but then just as suddenly she said gleefully, "The lyrics are quite horrible. All about plucking the poor swallow. Its eyes and feathers and legs and so on."


Excerpted from "A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson. Copyright 2015 by Kate Atkinson. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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