Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2017

Afterwards, by Rachel Seiffert

Just a quick review for this one: having recently read Seiffert’s new novel A Boy in Winter, (see my review) I decided to hunt out a copy of her 2007 novel, Afterwards.  Like A Boy in Winter and The Dark Room, Afterwards explores guilt and moral responsibility, but the context is different to Seiffert’s WW2 novels.  Former soldier Joseph is struggling with the aftermath of events in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and David, the grandfather of his girlfriend Alice, is haunted by what happened in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising (1952–60).

Alice is surrounded by people who keep their secrets to themselves.  Her mother never married her father, and Alice has had no contact with him.  It’s not something they talk about.  Her grandfather is also reticent, not just about his service in Kenya but also about the circumstances of his marriage – which was a scandal at the time because his wife had been married before and there was stigma attached to divorce at that time.  And Joe, slowly forging a comfortable relationship with Alice, has learned to manage what is surely PTSD by withdrawing from everything – including his work and his friendships.  Alice is remarkably patient when Joe suddenly disappears out of her life without explanation: she spends a lot of time mulling over the best ways to get these secrets out in the open.  She really wants to make this complicated relationship work.

So this is a quiet, meditative sort of novel, with a slow build up of tension.  It is obvious that without some kind of professional intervention, Joe is going to explode in some way, but what he’s done in the past when he hasn’t been able to control himself, is not made clear.  When he takes on some house-painting at Alice’s grandfather’s place, David begins to unburden himself, as he used to with his wife, when she was alive.  But Joe’s capacity to be a listening post is clearly compromised and the reader feels a mounting sense of anxiety about what might happen.

There are many undercurrents at work.  Alice’s mother has married Alan, and the class differences are exacerbated by the impenetrability of Grandfather’s manner:

-I never know what he’s thinking.  Not just about me, about anything.  I can’t be around someone like that for too long.  It makes me nervous.
-Maybe that’s your problem then, not his?
-He’s such a stuffed shirt.
-Do you have to be so rude about my Dad.

Alan blinked at her. Then went on.

-I’m sorry, Sarah, but I think he’s rude.  It’s arrogant to think you’re above conversation.
-You’ve got him all wrong.
-Well, he doesn’t give me much to go on.  Maybe he should risk an argument with me.  At least we’d get to know each other that way.

Her mum didn’t respond, just shifted an awkward box from the boot to the back seat, and Alice wondered if she was swallowing something: the risk of this argument turning serious was too great for her to take. Alan was quiet too, shoving their rucksacks over to make more room, and it seemed as though he might be regretting what he’d said, or at least how he’d said it.  Her mum got into the driver’s seat, and Alice picked up the last of the bags from the path, finished packing the boot with Alan in silent solidarity.  Hard to love someone if you don’t know much about them.  Her grandfather didn’t dislike Alan, she was sure of that: he could be just as offhand with her and her mother, but at least they knew he was fond of them too.

What plays out in the novel is the conflict between Alice’s very human curiosity about the people in her life and the repressed memories of the damaged people she loves. Her anxiety about them is exacerbated because they seem to be withholding something important, and although she’s not naïve, she can’t guess what it might be and is determined to know.  Other characters make it clear that Seiffert isn’t suggesting that all soldiers are damaged by their experiences in war, but rather that some individuals don’t have the resources to keep a lid on things.  However David and Joe, separated by a generation, seem to represent a continuity in unexpressed guilt, along with the need to take moral responsibility for the impact of government policy on the ground.

An interesting novel but the fractured style may not suit everyone’s taste.

Author: Rachel Seiffert
Title: Afterwards
Publisher: W.H. Howes, 2007
ISBN: 9781407401072 (Large Print Edition)
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Afterwards

 


Responses

  1. Rachel Seifert – Afterwards; Amy Witting – Afterplay; Morris Gleitzman – After; all those Star Wars Aftermaths; and all the After the Wars. Happily Ever After. Sometimes it can be fun to group books by title and see what happens.

    Like

    • Ha! I can sense a meme coming on!

      Like


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