“A ‘companion’ piece rather than a sequel’, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins moves from the perspective of Ursula Todd in the critically acclaimed and highly popular Life After Life to that of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy. Having expected not to have survived his stint as a bomber pilot in the Second World War, Teddy lives out the rest of his life without passion or motivation. Life After Life contained several potential story threads as Atkinson resurrected Ursula multiple times, allowing her another chance at life. A God in Ruins lacks this central conceit, detailing only the narrative in which Teddy survives the war. However, this novel does reinforce Atkinson’s exploration of the notion of fiction, as she once again writes about the process and implications of writing.
While the lack of its precursor’s conceit renders A God in Ruins more mainstream in terms of storytelling, the narrative is equally complex. Told non-chronologically, the novel reveals its characters through glimpses and fragments, adding to the allure of the novel. The narrative also incorporates past, present and future rather fourth dimensionally through its focus on memory, as a trip to the beach in 1980 inspires memories of a grammar school in the 1970s and a birthday cake from a shop in St Helen’s Square in the 1990s. These leaps in time within the memories of the characters are perfectly complimented by Atkinson’s omniscient narration. With access to every character’s thoughts and emotions, the narrator and reader are denied nothing. This also adds some of the necessary humour to what could easily have been a somewhat dry novel, excluding the action of the war scenes, as the narrator passes sarcastic judgement on the characters and jokes at their expense, such as the “Poor Viola!” sigh at having to buy herself a birthday cake, despite her many hints, the over the top inclusion of the exclamation point superbly mimicking Viola’s melodrama.
This omniscient narration adds to Atkinson’s use of metafiction, as Teddy himself is a pseudo poet and Viola eventually a successful writer who, Atkinson self-mockingly writes, wished she had known more of her father’s experiences in the war as “people always took war novels seriously.” The narrator also comments on Teddy’s writing that “if an author was a god, then he was a very poor second-rate one, scrabbling around the foothills of Olympus.” This is very apt in regards to Life After Life, as Atkinson continually resurrects Ursula, illustrating the author’s God-like omnipotence within a novel, whereas here she merely observes, allowing her characters free will and judging them for their decisions. This then correlates with one of the major themes of the novel: the fall of man. Oscillating between the Edenic paradise of Teddy’s childhood at Fox Corner and the shattering aftermath of the Second World War, the fall from God’s grace is easily conveyed by Atkinson, as the innocence and happiness of Teddy’s childhood before the war can never be regained. Viola may try to reclaim this paradise, moving to a communal farm she names Adam’s Acre, but the locals disregard the name and the place never becomes the rural ideal of Teddy’s childhood home.
While lacking the unique and outstanding literary technique of Life After Life, A God in Ruins – whilst still exploring notions of metafiction and the author’s role in a novel – does not necessarily require such an elaborate conceit to drive it. The characters are interesting enough, driven along by Teddy’s demoralised stoicism and Viola’s monstrous maternal mannerisms, and the fragmented chronology of the novel is still appealing without having to incorporate a complex literary device behind it all. All of these factors mean that A God in Ruins is at the very least its companion’s equal.