After Before by Jemma Wayne

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After Before by Jemma Wayne

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Three women leading three very different lives, find their paths not just crossing but entwined. Each of them is hiding or running from their past, and only when they revisit that 'other country' can they hope to move into the future. Stark lives gently unfold... some harshness but ultimately an uplifting read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 333 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Legend Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781909878846

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Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2015

Emily easier for English people to pronounce than Emilienne, lives in a council tower block, barely furnished, but still - for her - a place of safety, a place of anonymity, which is the best way for her to exist. She cleans commercial premises and relishes the work. She makes her small earnings go as far as possible, shopping locally, living frugally.

She remembers a different time, a time when she lived with Auntie and there were armfuls of shopping... but then something happened and she had to leave. She understands why. And she is still grateful to Auntie and Uncle for getting her to England in the first place. It's a hard life, but it's a life, and sometimes she is able to forget about what came before.

Vera has been told that she is beautiful. Luke tells her often. Charlie, before, used other words. 365 days after she met Luke, 602 days since she last took Cocaine, 433 since she smoked anything illegal, and 366 since she last had sex, Luke proposes. Of course, she says YES. As well as a diamond ring, he gives her a Bible. A beautiful hand-crafted Bible. And Vera wants to be worthy, to be better, to be clean.

Lynn is Luke's mother, she lives alone in a huge rattling townhouse in St Johns Wood, just three roads away from Luke. The house is kept as best as she can keep, the way she always has, since she got married and gave up her life to be a wife and a mother (and a frustrated academic and artist if anyone had bothered to ask). She's a widow now though, and one of her sons has moved away and Luke comes by at predictable intervals and so now, finally, she has a workroom and can paint. Secretly. Now, though she's trying to deny it, she knows she's coming to the end. The pain is getting worse, and she declines to have anything much done about it.

Three so very different reasons who have absolutely nothing in common and no reason to like each other. But their lives become entwined, and as they do so, so do their past lives.

Vera is about to marry Lynn's son. And Emily, striving to be something more than an office cleaner, comes to work in the house.

What follows is an unravelling of the past, which has to be unravelled before the future can possibly be knit. Lynn, who gave up everything (as women did in those days) and tried to be happy and content with her darling sons and her wonderful husband, but never really was, is the catalyst that ultimately enables the younger women to face their own histories of what happened before.

Both are stories of disasters, of life and death and hurt, of the choices we make and those that are somehow made for us. And ultimately they are stories that show that the degree of choice one has in the matter, might not be relevant in terms of the pain that follows. They are stories not only of keeping secrets but of why secrets are kept - and how the secrecy and the reasons for it are always far more damaging than the truth could ever be. They are stories about shame, about being ashamed, when (maybe) there was never any cause to be.

After Before is one of those books that are so difficult to review, because to talk about it, about its real strengths, requires giving away too much of the plot. Part of the pleasure of reading the book is in the discovery of what went before, discovering it slowly through the breadcrumb trail dropped along the way. The histories are not too hard to guess in essence, but still: being told them up-front does take away some of the point of getting to know the characters slowly. It is only in getting to know them slowly, in seeing only as much of them as they are willing to let you see (even at the one remove of a third-person narrator) that you can fully appreciate them and how they feel.

It's a strong debut, focusing on the fearless telling of two very different lives. The stories of Lynn and her sons become the focal point around which Vera and Emilienne revolve, but it is their stories that are the meat of the tale. Different worlds, different horrors, different solutions, one seeking redemption, the other forgetfulness.

Wayne's masterstroke is to make Lynn the centrepiece, not so overpowering as to dominate the stage, but still strong enough to hold her place at the centre. She has her own mistakes and misconceptions to deal with, and less time to do it in, but she sees a way forward for herself in helping others. This comes as something of a revelation in itself for the 'grand dame' who has lorded it (more properly 'ladied it') over others for most of her life, but even in her giving aid, her formidable not-to-be-nay-said approach is what works. She is straight out of the do-gooding-days-of-the-Raj-ex-pat school of entitlement, and Wayne manages to show us that for all the errors and shortcomings of those days, there was still some good in amongst the attitudes that forged them.

Religion and race form a tangible thread through both stories. What people believe or are taught to believe, and how that shapes what they do, even when they're not sure that they really DO actually, of themselves, believe.

In places the telling is brutal, but it's also one of the best renderings I've come across of what it might really have been like to live through one of the worst horrors of the final years the 20th century.

It reads as a relatively simple, if slowly unfolding story, but the more I come to write about, the more subtleties I recognise within it.

I suspect this is one that will stand the test of being re-read once the whole is known.

Enjoyed it immensely.

If you like this, we think that (although it's somewhat different) you will also enjoy Close Your Eyes by Ewan Morrison. You might also enjoy Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne.

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