If you've read Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life," as you really should have (although you needn't have to love this book), you'll know most of the characters who people her new novel — in particular Teddy, the beloved younger brother of Ursula, whose many possible lives unfolded in the earlier book. "A God in Ruins" is one of those lives, Atkinson suggests in an author's note, "an unwritten one. This sounds like novelist trickery, as indeed it perhaps is," she goes on, "but there's nothing wrong with a bit of trickery."
There is a bit of trickery here, as it turns out, as philosophical as it is novelistic, but the book's pleasures — and its accomplishments — are ultimately more remarkable than the twist the story finally takes. Teddy is an Englishman, born in 1914, who, after a spell of tramping around, trying his hand at farm work and poetry, finds himself unhappily working at his father's bank. "The war, when it came," we are told, "was an immense relief for Teddy."
The war, in which Teddy acquits himself heroically as an RAF pilot, is the real story of "A God in Ruins" — the inescapable reality, rendered in intimate and harrowing detail, that the narrative returns to again and again, after venturing into moments of the past and future that Teddy and his family inhabit.
What comes of it? "The dead were dead. And they were legion." But meanwhile the living have to make do: Teddy's childhood sweetheart Nancy, their difficult daughter, Viola, and her unfortunate children Bertie (a girl) and Sunny (a boy). Atkinson interweaves their stories with Teddy's wartime experiences so that, for a reader if not for these characters, nothing exists in isolation.
Her method mimics these connections, as in the middle of one character's story, another weighs in — interpolations that reflect divergent points of view and, at the same time, the way in which these differences merge in one voice or perspective.
Each life informs the others it touches; everyone exists in conversation with everyone else, and the whole story in a sense exists in conversation with the larger literature, as lines of Shakespeare, Spenser, Keats, Wordsworth, Gilbert and Sullivan enter the narrative in the characters' thoughts and speech.
As fluid in time as it is in perspective, the story weaves back and forth between Teddy's childhood and old age, his grandchildren's lives (and if little Sunny's Dickensian treatment at the hands of his addled father and awful paternal grandmother doesn't make you cry, then you must have no heart) and the painfully hilarious reflections of the charmless Viola.
And throughout, an authorial voice now and then comments ("although that was probably not relevant" or "you might be wondering" or "perhaps it was best not to imagine how"), reminding us that all of these may also be possible lives, however real, and however moving, in the imagining. "When all else is gone, Art remains."
Ellen Akins teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Wisconsin.