A God in Ruins is a companion piece to Kate Atkinson’s time-travelling World War II drama Life After Life. (I read the latter back in 2014, and although I appear to have only rated it 3/5, hindsight must have softened my judgement because I’m sure I remember loving it.) Given the nature of Life After Life – our plucky heroine Ursula Todd lives her life over and over, moving through a myriad of different outcomes – A God in Ruins isn’t a true sequel. Atkinson comments in the Author’s Notes that she considers this book to be set during one of Ursula’s many undocumented lives. And while Ursula does appear, our focus here is her beloved younger brother Teddy.
I think it’s down to the uniqueness of Life After Life that I struggled to get into A God in Ruins. Although we do move back and forth in time – from Teddy’s years flying bomber planes in the war, to his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Nancy, to the childhood and beyond of his grandchildren – the whole thing feels much more linear. I’d also forgotten a lot of the characters and circumstances of the previous novel, and although I picked up the basics again quite quickly, I can’t help but feel that I would have appreciated God more had I read it hot on the heels of Life.
That isn’t to say that I disliked this book – just that it took me a good few weeks to settle down to it properly. Once I finally did, I read a great swathe of it in a day and a night, and found it difficult to say goodbye to Teddy. He’s such a solidly good, kind man, and I particularly enjoyed the sections in which he raised his grandchildren (Sun and Moon(!)) while his feckless daughter Viola was off at Greenham Common. The chapter in which Sunny is squirrelled away by his altogether more well-to-do grandparents, who promptly change his name and begin a summer of malignant neglect made for difficult reading.
As ever, Atkinson’s writing is magnificent. The sections of the novel that depict Teddy piloting his crew through a lightning storm, bailing out over the North Sea and clinging to life aboard a dinghy for two days before rescue, are masterfully penned. I loved the level of details – from the little rituals each crew-member had before flights, to the homing pigeons kept aboard to carry messages in case the crew had to bail. The level of research Atkinson must have conducted came across without ever being overbearing.
And then there’s the ending. Ah, the ending. It hit me like a suckerpunch, left me reeling and turning to Google to check if that really happened. I won’t spoil it, except to say the book was by no means a standard linear narrative after all.
In the balance of things, I preferred Life After Life, but A God in Ruins is a solidly satisfying companion that I’d recommend to anyone who enjoyed the first.
[Read from 20 March-19 April 2017]