Afterwards, by Rachel Seiffert

Guilty secrets of the past
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The Independent Culture

In the story of Joseph, a young man suffering from post-traumatic stress, Seiffert returns to many of the themes of her first novel, The Dark Room: guilt, grief, memory and forgetting. But Afterwards also asks the questions about how much people can really know the people they love.

There are many kinds of love in the novel. There is the complicated love of daughter for father; the protective love of grandparents for their only granddaughter; the unconditional love of brother and sister. But the lovers in the story are Alice and Joseph. They meet in a pub, and tentatively, unremarkably, fall in love. But each has a past that makes really getting to know each other a struggle. Alice has been rejected by her father not just once, but twice. Joseph is tormented by his time as a soldier in northern Ireland.

Alice's beloved grandmother has just died, and Joseph offers to help her grandfather by redecorating his house. Curmudgeonly David opens up to this young soldier, in ways he never has to his family. But what he shares opens wounds in Joseph, and makes Alice wonder if she has ever really known either of them.

Dialogue in the novel is telling. Conversational boundaries are vague, with reported speech mingling with direct speech and internal monologue. Sometimes it can be confusing, but the technique shows that sometimes it is unclear just what has been said. The women, in particular, are guilty of trying to read each other from silences. When men talk to each other, they don't say much, but at least they get it said.

As a nurse, Alice is used to more intimacy. Only Joseph's sister seems content to leave him alone with his guilt. Alice and her mother want to know the men they love - whether the men like it or not.

Perhaps the women feel excluded from the history that the men have been part of. In the end, the only woman who seems to have come close is Alice's grandmother, and she has taken the secrets of her long marriage to her grave. Alice, who had always felt sorry for her grandparents, suddenly realises "that something more had been passing between them, in all that time." Finally, perhaps she understands them, after all.