Kate Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life published in 2013 told the story (or rather stories) of Ursula Todd who lives her life several times over in many variations with very different outcomes. Her latest book ‘A God in Ruins’ is a “companion novel” rather than a sequel which focuses on the life of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy. Spanning his life across the twentieth century and four generations of the Todd family, it draws on Teddy’s youth at Fox Corner, his wartime experiences as a pilot flying a Halifax bomber followed by later post-war years with his family. He marries his childhood sweetheart Nancy but has a strained relationship with their daughter Viola who shows little appreciation for the horrors Teddy witnessed when he served in Bomber Command.
Although the structure of ‘Life After Life’ may have seemed rather gimmicky at first glance, its real strengths were in Atkinson’s excellent storytelling and a cast of engaging characters, both of which are also present in ‘A God in Ruins’. Rather than adopting the same structural device again, Atkinson only follows one path of Teddy’s life – another completely different version – rather than several alternative stories this time. Even though the story flits back and forth in time between various episodes in Teddy’s life from youth to old age, Atkinson leaves some surprises to the very end and is just as inventive when handling one narrative as she is when managing several.
Atkinson balances understated humour and poignancy with great effect in her observational prose. Teddy’s transformative wartime experiences shape the rest of his life and the chapters detailing the RAF bombing raids during the Second World War form the heart of the novel and have been brilliantly researched. There is lighter relief elsewhere in the form of sly digs at Viola’s career as an author and Teddy’s exasperation at how he is treated in his old age by the younger generations of his family.
As ‘A God in Ruins’ is a companion novel to ‘Life After Life’ rather than a sequel, it doesn’t particularly matter which order you read them in and some readers who were less keen on the looping structure of Atkinson’s previous novel may prefer ‘A God in Ruins’. I’m so pleased that Atkinson has revisited the Todd family and produced another absorbing and moving account of their lives. Having deservedly won the Costa novel award earlier this year, I would be very surprised if ‘A God in Ruins’ wasn’t included on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist due to be announced tomorrow.