A GOD IN RUINS, by Kate Atkinson. Little, Brown and Company, 468 pp., $28.
Three years ago this spring, Kate Atkinson's bestselling novel, "Life After Life," seemed to be the book that everybody was talking about. Atkinson, already known for a series of novels featuring detective Jackson Brody, applied her storytelling powers and deft character studies to a high-concept premise: protagonist Ursula Todd is born, lives, dies and is born again, over and over. In one life, she dies as a child; in another, she lives to experience the London Blitz of World War II; in still another she marries a German and finds herself trapped in Berlin as the conflict grinds to its devastating conclusion. There is even an attempt to kill Hitler thrown into the mix.
Atkinson carried off each story line brilliantly -- her Blitz passages were on a par with those in Sarah Waters' superb "The Night Watch" -- but I found the concept tiresome after a while. Who could keep track of these endless variations, and why should I care about Ursula's fate if she'd get another crack at it all a few pages later?
Atkinson's new novel, "A God in Ruins," is billed as a companion to "Life After Life," and I'm happy to report that the author has mostly ditched the gimmickry of the earlier book. Here she switches her focus to Teddy Todd, Ursula's brother who served as an RAF pilot during the war. In "A God in Ruins" we get the full span of Teddy's life -- just one, thank you very much -- but the episodes have been shuffled. We meet him first as a boy, next as an old man and eventually circle back to his war service, flying bombing missions over Europe -- the great inescapable experience of his life. "He had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day," Atkinson writes. "Part of him never adjusted to having a future."
We meet Teddy's wife, Nancy -- a childhood neighbor and friend -- and their resentful daughter, Viola, a misanthrope who grows up to write commercial women's fiction deemed "almost as good as Jodi Picoult." We meet Teddy's grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie, the casualties of Viola's disastrous relationship with Dominic Villiers, a "semi-aristocratic" hippie whose self-absorption and self-destructiveness will forever mark their kids. Each of these snapshots of Teddy's life is absorbing and rich with texture. In its sweep, "A God in Ruins" becomes a portrait of the English before, during and after World War II, showing how successive generations have been shaped by -- and reacted against -- the one before. That sweep reminded me of Alan Hollinghurst's splendid 2011 novel, "The Stranger's Child," which leapfrogged through the decades but always kept the reader invested in its characters.
Some of Atkinson's best writing comes in the chapters describing Teddy's wartime service. Atkinson puts you right in the aircraft with Teddy and his crew; she captures the fraternity of these men from all walks of life, and the superstitions that bind them. We see a bombing run as Teddy sees it, at once beautiful and breathtakingly horrific: "The first Target Indicators dropped over the city by the Pathfinders were fountains of red and gold, showering the earth below, and they were followed by lovely green ones, so that the overall effect was of jeweled fireworks cascading in the black sky. The coloured lights were joined by the bright quick flashes of the high explosive and the larger, slower explosions of the 4,000-lb cookies, and everywhere there was the enchanting twinkling of white lights as thousands upon thousands of incendiaries rained down upon the city."
One of the great pleasures of "A God in Ruins" is its omniscient narrator, offering wry commentary on the proceedings and occasionally, as in Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," flashing forward abruptly to reveal the fates of characters decades in the future. (This is a novel riddled with spoilers that spoil nothing, really.) Atkinson's characters are haunted by alternate realities they've imagined for themselves that don't come to pass -- or, in Teddy's case, by the postwar "afterward" he doesn't expect to see. Only at the very end of "A God in Ruins" does Atkinson succumb to the kind of tricksiness that characterized "Life After Life." At first, I felt a bit let down by the novel's conclusion -- I'll say no more -- but upon reflection what really stays with me is the magnificent tapestry of English family life that Atkinson has created, a novel for people who love novels.