A God in Ruins is the sequel to Life After Life, but a sequel in the loosest sense. Atkinson turns her focus to Teddy, Ursula’s beloved younger brother and the family darling.
‘Out of all of them, you are my favourite,’ and he knew it was true and felt bad for the others. (It was a relief, Sylvie thought, finally to know what love was.)
The Teddy we met in Life After Life was a would-be poet and RAF bomber pilot. In A God in Ruins we trace his childhood, his time as a pilot and his role as a husband (to Nancy), father (to Viola) and grandfather (to Bertie and Sonny). Atkinson exposes the War in horrid detail and the challenges of ‘modern living’, as Teddy and Nancy establish their home.
In one sense, more ‘happens’ in this book compared to the first – Atkinson’s inclusion of some deft moral dilemmas highlight familiar themes – the currency of a secret; the importance of a moment in time; lost possibilities; and the ripple effect of trauma.
Secrets had the power to kill a marriage, she said.
Nonsense, Sylvie said, it was secrets that could save a marriage.
I enjoyed the theme of nature in this story, from Teddy’s reluctant participation in the Kibbo Kift as a boy and his writing of a nature column as an adult, to Viola’s life at a supposedly ‘Utopian’ commune. Like everything Atkinson writes, there are layers and layers to her words –
It wasn’t just the one lark that had been silenced by Izzie…It was the generations of birds that would have come after it and now would never be born. All those beautiful songs that would never be sung. Later in life he learned the word ‘exponential’, and later still the word ‘fractal’, but for now it was a flock that grew larger and larger as it disappeared into a future that would never be.
If you have read Life, you’ll be rewarded with familiar details (Augustus! The dogs!) and conclusions to the stories of many characters.
They listened to the engine of Izzie’s Sunbeam licking into life and the unnerving sound of her accelerating away. She drove in the manner of Toad, much tooting and little braking.
The new cast includes Viola, who is simply revolting. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Viola’s parenting of Bertie and Sonny dominates much of the story, and it makes for fascinating reading – if I ever need a fictional case study for attachment theory, Viola is my target.
But the horrid Viola serves a broader purpose – Teddy, like thousands of young men of his generation, sacrificed and endured so much during the War, only to come out the other side to share the world with people like the ungrateful, self-centered Viola – and over and over in this story, we are asked ‘was it worth it?’ and ‘at what cost?’.
Structurally, A God in Ruins is less ambitious than Life, however, Atkinson pulls a writing stunt toward the end that will divide readers – some will scream ‘WHAAAAT?!’, and others will nod sagely and think ‘Clever….’. Initially, I was in the first camp but then I calmed the hell down and moved to the second. And I’m still thinking about, which I reckon is a good thing.
4.5/5 I didn’t love it quite as much as Life – the half star differentiates them but truly, this book is outstanding.
They ate fish-paste sandwiches and drank water from a stream and it was as if the Third Reich didn’t exist and England was restored to her green and pleasant self.