One day in an endlessly hot summer, John Cole heads to Norfolk to visit his brother; he gets lost, seeks help. At a nearby, grandly dilapidated house, he is mysteriously greeted by name: they were expecting him. There’s the ugly, maternal Hester; pale, piano-playing Eve; the former preacher Elijah, seemingly serene yet sent agoraphobic by loss of faith; red-haired twins, Alex and Clare, quivering with child-like giddiness and vulnerability; and Walker, chain-smoking, intimidating. John doesn’t know them, yet feels compelled to stay. But how do they know him? “What keeps them here, pleasure or punishment …” John – and the reader – wonders.
Such questions are eventually answered, with psychological acuity and narrative plausibility; Sarah Perry’s debut is less wilfully quirky than such a summary sounds.
But it is strange: ominously swollen with elusive significance. The action is unnervingly out-of-time: we might be in the future – the earth-scorching, bird-killing heat brought on by global warming – or in the past – no one has mobile phones or computers.
After Me is steeped in a quasi-religious atmosphere of impending doom. Perry was brought up in a religious home, deprived of pop culture in favour of “classic literature, Victorian hymns, and the King James Bible”. Her work perhaps reflects such a diet: not only literate, it also harnesses the mythic power of religious and historical texts to lend weight and wonderment. Set over seven days, its nod to the creation-myth is flagged by Perry opening a chapter “On the morning of the sixth day …”
The Anglo-Saxon poem, “Wulf and Eadwacer”, becomes a touch-stone. There are resonances between its story and the way Perry’s characters find love to be a cage. Most significant is that “Wulf and Eadwacer” is famously hard to interpret: in that, it fits right in to a novel concerned with how nothing is what it seems.
Although the story is largely told from John’s point-of-view, each character gets a short backstory, gradually clarifying relationships and history. Perry is adept at peeling back the skin to reveal a detailed anatomy of psychological motivation. Slowly showing how their lives interlock makes things less mysterious than they initially seem – or maybe it makes them even more so. Perry suggests that, in the end, there isn’t much that’s stranger than human love and envy, fear and desire. A gripping, memorable, impressive debut.
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