The award-winning Life After Life had a definite USP: a kind of Sliding Doors phenomenon which kept the reader gripped. How would the world be different if a key character, Ursula, died at birth? In a post-botched abortion fever? In the flu epidemic? In a wartime bombing raid? In that book, we found out. Different scenarios were explored, some coming to an end as another brush with the Grim Reaper cut short Ursula’s life, others played out to the fullest extent.
However, Kate Atkinson’s latest, A God in Ruins, which the author is keen to describe as a companion novel rather than a sequel, does not use this device.
Instead, it returns to a more traditional family saga in the spirit of Atkinson’s novels such as Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet, focusing on the life of Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother.
In Life After Life, which won the Costa Novel Award two years ago, Teddy is the good child; mother Sylvie’s golden “best boy”; the one who everybody is desperate to save as various incarnations of Ursula’s existence threaten his life.
He is the baby brother who nobody fights with; the loving little boy dedicated to servant Bridget, who is dying during the flu epidemic.
But A God in Ruins shows a different side to Teddy, now grown up and with family difficulties of his own.
He is father to the wayward and unconventional Viola. His marriage to Nancy, his childhood sweetheart, is not as idyllic as the first novel promised it would be.
What Teddy’s life shows us is that the outward perfection so prized by his mother is perhaps not all it is cracked up to be.
The war has changed Teddy. But what we are not told is if he would have remained the golden boy had he not been touched by the atrocities he has seen – first as a fighter pilot and then a prisoner of war.
The glimpses Atkinson gives us into his pre-war life are more promising. He is, in quick succession, a farmer and then a poet, living a dreamlike existence in rural France. But Teddy’s pastoral pursuits give way to brutal wartime atrocities as he becomes an RAF fighter pilot.
Post-war, stuck in a pedestrian job he hates and trapped in family life with a woman who he says he “lost to the Official Secrets Act” during the war, his family’s lack of understanding of him is his greatest frustration.
He is no longer a golden boy. One chapter gives us a glimpse into his misdemeanours – a blackout dalliance with a girl who is “plain with buck teeth” to whom he has no emotional attachment. He is also not the gentle boy that he was in the 1920s.
“Teddy won’t shoot anything,” his mother laughs, when Nancy carelessly suggests a life of self sufficiency, living off the land and hunting rabbits and hares.
“He has killed,” Teddy tells us in an internal monologue. “Many people. Innocent people.”
While Atkinson does not repeatedly write Teddy’s alternative paths as she does Ursula’s – bar a quick round up of various characters’ fates had Teddy not lived – she does hint at a chance to consider how things would have been if her character had chosen differently.
One graphic scene, which occurs not even in combat, but when he is learning to fly in Canada, gives us just a glimpse of what he has witnessed. One of his flying instructors crashes as he tries to land at the airfield and Teddy is among those dispatched to find the body.
His colleague, an unnamed fellow trainee, flees the scene and never becomes a fighter pilot. Instead, he leaves in disgrace to go “who knows where”.
Teddy, on the other hand, presses on with his training, a decision which will change his life forever.
Although without the gimmick of Life After Life, A God in Ruins offers a complex and realistic exploration of how conflict changes humanity.
Ursula cuts a more glamorous figure – she is the girl who hangs out with Eva Braun and, somewhat unbelievably, has the opportunity to shoot Adolf Hitler before he reaches power, potentially transforming the fortunes of Europe for decades – but Teddy is relatable.
He is everyone’s grandfather, a man with lost dreams, buried memories and personal struggles. “A life accrued and what was it worth? Not much apparently,” he says as his possessions are packed up for him to move to sheltered housing.
And while Teddy’s story may be “more boring” than Ursula’s, Atkinson’s telling of it is not.
He is the God in Ruins. He is the everyman in ruins, his life’s potential cut short not by death, like Ursula’s, but by experience – and the horrors of war.