I absolutely loved Kate Atkinson’s brilliant and inventive Life After Life from a few years back, a genre-defying novel that portrayed the many parallel lives of its heroine Ursula Todd in the first half of the 20th century. It also introduced the readers to the rest of the Todd family, among them Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy who becomes a bomber pilot in World War II. In the final “life” of the novel, Teddy gets a miraculous reprieve: presumed dead by everyone, he survives the war and comes back after having spent time as a POW. A God in Ruins takes that ending and runs with it, exploring Teddy’s war as well as his post-war life, a life that he never really expected to have.
Described by the author as a companion piece rather than a sequel, A God in Ruins doesn’t employ the same device as its predecessor: all the characters in the book have just one life. While it makes the novel feel perhaps less original and playful in comparison, repeating the same formula twice probably would have yielded diminishing returns. Atkinson does maintain the non-linear approach though by jumping and skipping freely across the timeline, not just in separate chapters but at times within the same paragraph. We could be reading about Teddy’s childhood at the idyllic Fox Corner one moment, then jump decades into the future.
World War II, which loomed large in Life After Life, also casts a long shadow here. Apart from the repetition factor, the decision not to employ the same “parallel lives” approach makes sense in the post-war setting. Whereas Life After Life was all about the irrepressible youth and Ursula’s many possible futures, the sheer impact of the war is so inescapable it locks Teddy within himself, diminished. Apart from a few personal dramas and losses, his post-war existence is mostly placid and uneventful: he marries his childhood sweetheart Nancy, works as a provincial journalist, then quietly accepts his lot as a lonely widower sliding into old age. His only real resolve, after surviving the war, is to be a kind person first and most.
Along with Teddy, we also get to know his family: his wife Nancy, their daughter Viola and her children, Bertie and Sunny. Viola is probably the book’s most memorable creation: a sour, self-centred, unloveable screw-up and an appalling mother, who goes from one disastrous relationship to another. Viola’s miserable times at the hippie commune and her later surprise breakthrough as a successful novelist are described with wry humour, and while the book never fully rehabilitates her, it slowly fills in the blanks in Viola’s story that at least explain her anger and bitterness.
Similarly to the London Blitz in Life After Life, Teddy’s WWII bombing raids take up substantial chunks of the book. While impeccably researched and vividly detailed, I confess that they held my interest the least, but that’s not a poor reflection on Atkinson’s writing, just my own personal preferences. Even so, it’s hard not to be affected by the stomach-turning atrocities of war, particularly the nightmarish descriptions of the bombing of Hamburg, consumed by the firestorm. You couldn’t call A God in Ruins an anti-war novel, exactly, because Teddy never questions the necessity of what he did, even after finding out the extent of civilian casualties later on, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from the cost of war.
Though generally a more straightforward novel, in its last pages A God in Ruins reveals a devastating trick that puts it closer to Life After Life than you might have initially thought. It probably infuriated some readers no doubt, but I found it thematically appropriate and powerful.