It’s a reader’s pleasure to imagine the lives of characters after a book comes to an end – what they did next, where they lived or worked, or who they married. And often, the fantasy is better than the real thing; sequels to popular novels rarely live up to the originals. For every glorious Good Wives, there’s a Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy to disappoint. I’m happy to report, then, that A God in Ruins – the follow-up to Kate Atkinson’s acclaimed and colossally popular Life After Life – is wonderful. Truly exceptional, perhaps even better that the former. It’s also very different, and readers who disliked the mysterious time-shifting concept in the former – or indeed never got round to reading it – should have no qualms about this book, albeit that it too skips from decade to decade and back again.
A God in Ruins follows Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother; a good-natured, inquisitive child who grows into a worldly and gregarious adult. Teddy is, as you learn early on, variously a war veteran and former POW: a husband and father, a lover and a friend, and an all-round stand-up chap. Atkinson tells Teddy’s story from youth to old age, although not chronologically, and at the same time follows those in his wider circle, from Ursula to Nancy Shawcross (one of the girls from next door in Life After Life, as the eagle-eyed will recall), and from his rather desolate mother to incorrigible authoress Aunt Izzie, while also introducing the reader to a new generation.
Unlike Life After Life, which was really all about Ursula, A God in Ruins is not Teddy’s story alone. It belongs as much to his daughter Viola, and to her knotty, tumultuous family. As you read on, it emerges that the life Teddy tried to build – the life he always thought he’d have – did not proceed exactly according to plan. Early on we meet his grandchildren – troubled, misunderstood Sunny and level-headed Bertie – and hear their versions of events. A scene where Teddy is accompanied by his grandson to some war graves is moving the first time; more so when retold from another perspective.
Atkinson is a master of detail, and Teddy’s life – his tiny, ramshackle first home, the chilling mundanities of preparing for a Bomber Command mission, the old haunts he returns to on his ‘farewell tour’ – are vividly rendered. Her particular skill is in leaving breadcrumbs for the reader; occasional nuggets about a character that only later you realise revealed a great deal. It’s not a faultless book, and certainly some sections were more engaging than others, but there’s still little to complain about.
Teddy is a marvellous protagonist; warm, witty and observant; squarely of his generation and yet a consistently original thinker. He is a man who watched and wondered as the world changed, but did not let it faze him.
A few pages in, I’d fallen head over heels for Teddy, who will surely go down as one of the best characters of 2015 fiction. He’s compelling at every stage, as the wide-eyed dreamer in the 1930s, as the daring hero of the war years and as the stoic of the subsequent decades. One of those books you’ll wish went on and on.
Published by Doubleday, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is available to buy online here.