Life After Life was probably my favourite read of 2014 so I was excited and nervous to find that Kate Atkinson had written a sequel to the novel. Excited because Life After Life was so rich and unique and enjoyable. Nervous because I wondered if a sequel was necessary and if Atkinson could recapture the magic of Life After Life.
The good news is probably that she doesn’t exactly try. On its own, A God in Ruins is quite good. It’s not as good as Life After Life and since it’s hard not to compare them, it is, unfortunately, bound to disappoint.
A God in Ruins focuses on the life of Teddy Todd, brother to Ursula on whom Life After Life focuses. Teddy and Ursula are close and readers of Life After Life will remember the significance of their relationship. (You certainly could read and enjoy this book on its own rather than as a sequel though it might seem like a strange sort of story.)
The main focus of the novel is Teddy’s time as a pilot in the RAF during the Second World War. Stationed in Yorkshire, he completes more than one tour, consisting of dangerous bombing raids on German cities. These crews had horrifically high casualty rates and this is emphasized as we follow several of Teddy’s missions. The crews – young men barely out of their teens – are reckless, brave, and full of superstitions. Teddy is a likeable, steady leader who cares about the men on his aircraft and believes in what he’s doing. Most of the time.
The novel moves back and forth through Teddy’s life. From his boyhood – where he inspires a rather cheesy series of novels written by his aunt – to the last years of his life, put into a nursing home by his extremely selfish daughter, Viola. We watch the early years of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Nancy Shawcross. A life together that Teddy never thought would happen because he never thought he would survive the war, was never able to plan a life in the seemingly mythical “After”. We meet Teddy’s daughter, his grandchildren, and witness the collapse and slow rebuild of their lives. The stories of each of these characters are varied and fascinating and well-drawn.
Ursula, of course, is featured, though in more of a supporting role. Personally, I would have liked to see more of how Teddy fit into her life (and which timeline of hers we were in) but I don’t think that was Atkinson’s goal with this novel.
Probably my major complaint would be with the character of Viola. She’s almost irredeemably selfish (Though there is an attempt made at the end of the novel. Too little, too late, would be my opinion.) The relationship between her and her father is sad – perhaps the great tragedy of Teddy’s life – but since Viola is so unlikeable much of her character seems to be there only to set Teddy up as the hero. Which is something I don’t think Teddy needs.
The setting of the RAF flights and World War Two is well done and immensely interesting to read about. And, of course, there’s a bit of a twist at the end, which readers of Life After Life might well understand.