In the companion novel to Life After Life, Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy – would-be poet, heroic pilot, husband, father, and grandfather – navigates the perils and progress of a rapidly changing world.
Ms. Atkinson does not play the same kinds of flagrant time tricks here that made Life After Life so dramatic. She needn’t erase one story to tell the next. But she does skip easily back and forth among decades, so that Teddy’s boyhood in the 1920s or Queen Elizabeth II’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee are both within easy reach of any other point in the book’s timeline … Structure, and its way of coalescing from the seemingly casual into the deliberate, has been a main attraction in other Atkinson books. In this one, the main attraction is Teddy, and the way his glorious, hard-won decency withstands so many tests of time. Everything about his boyhood innocence is reshaped by his wartime ordeals, which are rendered with terrifying authenticity thanks to the author’s research into real bombers’ recollections. And after the war he re-enters a world in which he can take nothing for granted.
Atkinson’s book covers almost a century, tracks four generations, and is almost inexhaustibly rich in scenes and characters and incidents. It deploys the whole realist bag of tricks, and none of it feels fake or embarrassing. In fact, it’s a masterly and frequently exhilarating performance by a novelist who seems utterly undaunted by the imposing challenges she’s set for herself … Taken together, Life After Life and A God in Ruins present the starkest possible contrast. In the first book, there’s youth and a multitude of possible futures. In the second, there’s only age and decay, and a single immutable past. This applies not only to the characters, but to England itself, which is portrayed over and over as a drab and diminished place. The culprit is obvious — it’s the war itself, ‘the great fall from grace.’
In A God in Ruins, she’s written not only a companion to her earlier book, but a novel that takes its place in the line of powerful works about young men and war … A God in Ruins contains many...harrowing scenes, rendered in economical detail and occasional black humor. Atkinson’s skills as a suspense writer serve her well here: It’s not till the final pages of the novel that we learn who makes it through the war and who doesn’t. As powerfully as it conveys life-and-death struggles in the air, A God in Ruins also compels readers to recognize the courage of those in the war’s aftermath, who were left to quietly pick up the pieces.