This highly-lauded book is named as the ‘companion’ to Atkinson’s best-selling Life After Life – you don’t have to have read the first to read this one, but in my opinion it would enhance your overall experience to do so. A God In Ruins takes on the story of Teddy, beloved brother of Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula. We see the same characters – the siblings’ parents, Sylvie and Hugh, their erratic aunt Izzie and their three other siblings – Pamela, Maurice and Jimmy. Fox Corner is still their wonderful childhood home, and they still live next door to the Shawcross family with its five darling daughters (one of whom being Nancy, Teddy’s childhood sweetheart and future wife).
However, this book is not really about them, they instead form the backdrop of an altogether darker topic which dominates Atkinson’s writing. The author lifts poor Teddy from the blissful hedgerows of his home and plunges him into the horror of the Second World War, where he is flying fighter planes and captaining a crew made up of boys younger than himself. Atkinson employs her highly effective habit of moving us back and forth between the years, piecing together a tremendous puzzle of generations, full of fleshed-out characters and criss-crossing paths. So, in one chapter we will be with Teddy’s unpleasant daughter Viola as she meets her bipolar husband Dominic, and in the next we will be in the midst of ‘Teddy’s War,’ a bloody, traumatic affair which manages to beautifully portray the camaraderie and the intense bonds formed between young men even whilst they dropped bombs on Europe from the blood-spattered skies.
The war isn’t all bad – there are tales of the men boozing together, occasionally picking up girls and enjoying dramatic flights where they come to no harm. Teddy’s friend Keith is his clear favourite, and we enjoy their friendship until Atkinson flashes us forward to Teddy as a grandfather, walking with his grandson Sunny through a graveyard, stopping before the stone that houses Keith. His grandson is ‘ambling off among the rows of the dead’ and when Teddy says ‘hello’ to his old friend’s headstone, Sunny is clearly ’embarrassed to be with a man talking to the dead, even though they were the only people in the cemetery.’ Atkinson deftly portrays the gap between the generations – Teddy cannot understand the young’s fascination with the darkness, because he has experienced the darkness for himself.
Whilst the chapters on the war are arguably the heart of this novel, fascinating too are the insights into other characters – the fierce bad temper of Viola, the curious headaches that plague Teddy’s wife Nancy, the continuing sales of Aunt Izzie’s Augustus books, for which the schoolboy Teddy is the inspiration. The rare moments snatched between Ursula and Teddy are heartwarming too, and for readers of Life After Life, Atkinson drops delicious little hints as to which one of Ursula’s lives she finally managed to live out. We see the characters age – indeed it could be said that ageing is a theme of the novel – and Teddy is at last made by his daughter to pack up his flat and move to an assisted living community. His favoured grandchild, Bertie, sits by his side holding his withered hand and marvels: ‘He was a baby once, she thought. New and perfect, cradled in his mother’s arms. Now he was a feathery husk, ready to blow away.’
A God In Ruins is a masterpiece of a book. Atkinson has created characters and a world so believable, so thrillingly interlinked that one becomes entirely consumed by it, the very scope of it, the tiny details and asides that add up to connect the lives of Teddy and his clan. In the last few pages of the book, there is a shock – it is at once heartbreaking and magical, and I won’t spoil it for you here, but if you need one last reason to read this novel then read it for the twist, because it really is a belter.