Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2021

After Story, by Larissa Behrendt

Larissa Behrendt began her writing career in non-fiction, publishing texts that relate to her work as a lawyer and advocate for Indigenous people, but her most recent non-fiction was the ground-breaking Finding Eliza, Power and colonial storytelling (2016, see my review).  She is also the author of three novels: Home (2004, see my review); Legacy (2009, see my review) and now After Story (2021).

Ostensibly a mother-daughter story about literary travel in the UK, After Story is much more than that.

When Jasmine’s plans for a trip with her BFF Bex fall through, she asks her mother Della to come with her instead, and the story is narrated in alternating chapters by these two. They don’t have a great relationship: Della stayed in her home town all her life while Jasmine was on the bus to Sydney as soon as she received an early offer to study law.  The family dynamics are complicated by the abduction of Jasmine’s seven-year-old sister Brittany from their bedroom 25 years ago when Jasmine was only three.  She has no memory of her family before this tragedy, and she has only ever known her mother as traumatised by it.  Jasmine has coped with the gossip and innuendo by being diligent at school and unobtrusive, always trying to be ‘good’ to disprove the stereotypes of Aborigines that cripple her spirit, while her sister Leigh-Anne confronts racism head-on.

Not long before the trip takes place, Della has suffered further bereavement.  The matriarch of the family, Aunty Elaine has died, and so has Della’s husband Jimmy, who lived a few doors down and was still a big part of her life even though they had separated.  Della has had a drinking problem for a long time, and the disappearance of a child on Hampstead Heath triggers memories that exacerbate a trauma that has never gone away.

This is not a story about the Stolen Generations: an historic criminal abduction of an Indigenous child is one element in a more complex story—but it shows with heartbreaking clarity how the loss of a child in any circumstances is a trauma that never goes away and persists into ensuing generations.  Reading between the lines, we see how in Indigenous communities such losses were a different kind of crime.  They were due to racist child removal policies and programs which affected not only the extended families of the stolen children but entire communities where the loss was not a rare and remarkable disappearance like that of the child on Hampstead Heath, but was something that happened to numerous families, and repeatedly, sometimes one child after another and sometimes all the children at once.  We see also from the backstory that the abduction of Brittany from her Indigenous family was treated with little urgency and hurtful suspicion whereas the missing child in England arouses public sympathy across the country.

While persisting intergenerational trauma is a thread that runs through the novel, After Story is also a marvellous evocation of travel that takes the form of literary pilgrimage.  Jasmine is well-read in the English classics, and she loves seeing the sites where her literary heroes lived and worked.  But she’s also well aware that the Eurocentric culture that dominates the discourse amongst her fellow-travellers (who provide wonderful opportunities for droll characterisation) is too often thought of as ‘superior’.  She thinks, as Australian travellers often do, that the northern hemisphere reverence for artefacts that are old needs to be seen in context.  Compared to the oldest living culture on earth, the ancient cultures of Rome, Greece, Persia, and Babylon are hardly ancient at all —as I commented on my travel blog back in 2005 after a visit to the British Museum:

Outside British prehistory there was a curator with a tray of items for visitors to touch and hold. She let me handle a small pick and a hammer head, but (as I couldn’t resist telling her) these were hardly ancient compared to Aboriginal culture, which goes back 40,000 years. I was a bit surprised to find that she didn’t know much about the technologies used by our Aborigines in prehistory, and she was very impressed when I told her I’d seen small ‘wells’ carved by hand in Wave Rock, Western Australia. These wells were filled with sand to stop precious water from evaporating during the drought. I think Aussies should do much more bragging about the unique culture and history of our Aborigines…

The other foil to their fellow-travellers is Della, who doesn’t know much about The Canon apart from the film adaptations she’s seen.  As they make their way from Bloomsbury to Bath and onto the landscapes of Thomas Hardy and the Brontës, she sees everything with fresh eyes.  Doing the Dickens trail to the Foundling Hospital triggers thoughts about child removal which encompasses all the stolen children as well as her own loss of Brittany: ‘Sometimes, like I know, you can love them and want to keep them and they’re just taken from you.’  

Conscious that the quiet wife of the bombastic professor is overlooked by the rest of the group, she connects with what she’s heard about Virginia Woolf:

I looked at the Professor’s wife was still quietly eating her dinner.  And I thought about some people just get overlooked.  Like the way the woman who drowned herself in the river had said happened to so many women.  And I thought about how often we’re too afraid to say anything. (p.136)

With courage fuelled by too much alcohol, Della voices her thoughts about her own sister’s bossiness and then, thinking of how the tour guide has been patronised and how people judge a book by its cover and think they know all about it even though they’ve never bothered to read it, she comments that ‘Some people think they’re more important than everyone else’ and that ‘They just don’t realise that other people have feelings.  They’re rude and think that everything they say is what other people should do.’

Behrendt takes a compassionate view of Della’s drinking but she also portrays how it has affected Jasmine throughout her life.  She’s been monitoring her mother’s drinking and dealing with the fallout for years, but on this occasion she’s not with family who are used to it and accept it as ‘normal.’  Among strangers, she reacts sharply and wants to whisk her mother away.  Della is incredibly hurt:

‘Mum,’ Jasmine whispered sharply, ‘do you want me to take you up to bed?’

‘No,’ I told her in a tone that I hoped showed she’d hurt my feelings. ‘I haven’t even had my dessert yet.’

I needed a smoke, but when I got outside into the still, light evening, I felt dizzy.  Why would Jasmine bring me here if she was going to ignore me and me feel ashamed for saying things? (p.137)

Jasmine’s narration of the same day tells us that Della spilt her glass of red wine across the table as she stumbled outside, and that she apologised for for her mother’s behaviour, explaining the recent bereavements as the catalyst.  When she goes outside to see if Della is ok, Della arcs up when she hears that Jasmine apologised, saying ‘You don’t need to apologise for me.’

Oh, but I do, I wanted to tell her.  And I have been for most of my life.’ (p.148)

There’s a world of pain in that line of text, and it continues with Jasmine’s doubts about whether her tolerance for her mother’s drinking to deal with grief has made her more of an enabler than a support.

There are so many thought-provoking aspects to this novel that it’s hard to do it justice.  There are plenty of other reviews out there that discuss other themes, but trust me, After Story is a must-read novel that will be on many award shortlists and Best-of lists this year as well.

Larissa Behrendt is an Indigenous author from the Eualeyai/Kamillaroi people.

PS You can hear an interview with Larissa Behrendt here.

Author: Larissa Behrendt
Title: After Story
Publisher: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702263316, pbk., 360 pages
Review copy courtesy of UQP.


Responses

  1. This sounds a really rich novel, so many huge themes. I just checked and I think I can only get it on Kindle in the UK – I’m tempted towards a Readings order!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have just closed this book and it’s too soon to comment upon it for me, except to say that is has moved me more than anything I have read this year. So many fine things about it, but the character of Della is one of the loveliest aspects – utterly uplifting!

    Like

    • Yes, she is, isn’t she?
      I love that bit where NoSpoilers she has them spellbound with her storytelling.

      Like

  3. I’m not reading this review as I really want to read this … it sounds so interesting, and right up our alleys. Gorgeous cover too.

    Like

  4. Did UQP send you one after all, Lisa? I’ll come back and read your review after I have read the book… I’m focusing on #20BooksOfSummer at the moment.

    Like

    • Yes, they did. They said they sent one at the same time as they sent the others but it never turned up so they sent another one.
      I like to think that someone somewhere is having a lovely time reading it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have no idea when I will get to read this, but I’ve bought a copy on the strength of your review, Lisa. ;-)

    Like

  6. I get to pick our next book group book – I’m pretty sure it’s going to be this one. I’m keen for the discussion.

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    • There would be so much to talk about… and the travellers among you could bring along their photos, scrapbooks and memorabilia from the places referenced in the book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well we could show off our photos, scrapbooks & memorabilia via zoom!!

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        • Exactly, I bet people would love being able to share their memories of those trips.
          You know, I just saw a Facebook thanks in a group I belong to: everybody dressed up and had a drink to toast her with and they did fun birthday backgrounds for her it was really special. I think the more we can do to connect with others and make it a highlight of the week, the better. Apart from anything else, it means that when we ring each other to chat, we’ve actually got something to chat about.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. What a striking cover. I’m also thinking about how her titles are similar to the later titles of Toni Morrison’s novels.

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    • Ah, I hadn’t picked that up. I confess, I haven’t read enough of Toni Morrison, which is strange because her books are brilliant.

      Like


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