I have to admit to feeling some skepticism about A God in Ruins before I started reading it. I so loved Life After Life that the thought of a sequel--or follow-up, or some other word--made me nervous.
I should be more trusting. A God in Ruins is a wonderful, sink-into-it-and-wallow kind of book, the kind where you (or I, anyway) start reading more slowly towards the end because you don't want the book to finish.
If you've read Life After Life, you know that that book has a unique structure in which the main character, Ursula Todd, is born, dies, and is born again on the same day, only to live a little longer the next time. This is a pattern that keeps repeating. A God in Ruins is mostly a more straightforward narrative, this time from the point of view of Ursula's beloved brother Teddy. The book looks hard at Teddy's experiences as a bomber pilot in WWII and how those experiences affect the rest of his life.
But it's not just about Teddy. Ursula makes an occasional appearance, but the book dives more deeply into the lives of Teddy's wife, Nancy, and their only child, Viola, a difficult and unlikable character if ever there was one. But we do learn about something in Viola's childhood that does a lot to explain why she's difficult and unlikable, and to me, that's the best thing about having an unlikable character: show me why. Make me feel bad that I probably wouldn't like this person in real life if I didn't know this fact about them.
We also get to spend some rather heartbreaking chapters looking at the lives of Teddy's grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie. So I guess you could say this is a multi-generational novel, but it's not told in a linear way, so it doesn't feel like one of those "sprawling family epics". Instead it feels like a tender, intimate look at each of these people's histories and how they became the people they are.
Do you have to have read Life After Life to appreciate A God in Ruins? I don't think so. I think it stands pretty well on its own. That said, Ursula's appearances, rare as they are, would have more meaning and subtext if you have read the previous book.
Three cheers for Kate Atkinson. I will doubt no more.