In Life After Life Ursula Todd lived through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. In A God in Ruins, Atkinson turns her focus on Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy – would-be poet, RAF bomber pilot, husband and father – as he navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century. For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never expected to have. – Goodreads
A God In Ruins is a follow-up to Life After Life, which I read in preparation for this book and really enjoyed. While this isn’t a sequel, it’s pretty important to read Life After Life first, because there’s a lot of context you won’t get from this book on its own. While Life After Life focuses on Ursula Todd, this one is mostly about her younger brother, Teddy. Teddy was a pilot during WWII, and he flew many hair-raising missions – culminating in his capture and imprisonment as a POW.
This book alternates between Teddy’s future and past, while also switching perspective between Teddy and his daughter, Viola (with forays into other characters here and there). I’ve only read two of Atkinson’s books that I can remember clearly, so I can’t make any sweeping statements about her writing style beyond them. However her style in these two books tends towards a sense of remove and quiet observation. Her characters are attuned to the details in the world around them, and give us an insightful view of every aspect of the people in their lives – from the good to the bad to the ugly.
This knack for a balanced, honest view of character was something I actually found a bit difficult in this novel, because most of the characters weren’t very likable. Spending 400 pages with them was at times a bit of a chore, and the tendency for the narrative to wander off on rambling tangents further challenged my attention span.
In the first book, the protagonist experiences a phenomenon where time rewinds and here entire life shifts multiple times. This is what made it such a unique and intriguing book. It also worked really well to offset any characters or plots the reader didn’t like, because none lasted for very long. I felt like Atkinson’s attempt to mirror that plot structure without the actual do-over lives didn’t work as well for this novel. I ended up feeling trapped in a story I would have been happy to leave behind had it been a storyline in Life After Life.
I don’t want to spoil this book for you, so I can’t go much further in discussing the plot structure. But I will say that some of the decisions made by Atkinson about her plot structure and character representations make sense when you get to the end. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel like the book could have taken a somewhat shorter road to its conclusion.
I also have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the plots and characters Atkinson chose to focus on. I wanted to hear about Teddy’s time as a POW and how he finally made it home (alluded to but not explored), Nancy’s work during the war (we can be fairly certain she worked at Bletchley as a codebreaker though we don’t know the extent of her work or how important it was) and even the granddaughter, Bertie who seemed to have more of the Todd spirit and intelligence than her brother. Unfortunately, these were not prominent and I ended the book feeling disappointed. This could very much be a subjective area of disappointment, but it made a big enough impression on me that I felt it really contributed to my overall satisfaction level with the story.
It’s hard to say if my feelings about this novel were unfairly impacted by reading it right after Life After Life. I know some other readers were blown away by the ending, and felt that it was worth the journey to get there. I think this is one of those books that will leave its audience with a widely varied set of responses.
The writing is excellent (if a little on the rambling side at times) and there were several lines and passages that really stood out to me. The setting and atmosphere are crafted flawlessly just as in Life After Life, and Atkinson’s representations of WWII pilots were the most emotionally evocative part of the book for me. I didn’t get along with the characters, but I know I wasn’t really supposed to. This book isn’t an easy emotional ride either – the fact that the characters can be difficult to connect to may actually be a blessing, as none of them has an easy time.
If you read Life After Life a while ago and are curious to dive back into the Todd family, if you enjoy very detailed family sagas, or if you are a reader who enjoys florid or reflective prose, you will probably find a lot to impress you in A God In Ruins.
Once you’ve read the book (because this link will include spoilers), I strongly recommend checking out The Socratic Salon’s Book Breakdown post – whatever your reaction, you will find other readers there who share it. It’ll also give you a more balanced set of opinions than mine.
Author: Kate Atkinson
Series: Companion to Life After Life
Published By: Bond Street Books
Released: May 5, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction, Family, WWII