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I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.
This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.
A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London. Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.
The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?
The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.
One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.
This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).
Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.