After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

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After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: You need to put a little bit of work into this novel right at the beginning as the story is told in a series of flashbacks, but it pays dividends. The writing is superb and the plot is a real page-turner.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: April 2001
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 0747268169

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On a whim Alice Raikes takes a train to Edinburgh to see her family. She has only been there a few minutes when she sees something which she finds so upsetting that she immediately boards the train back to Kings Cross. Within hours she is hit by a car in London traffic and is taken to hospital in a coma. Was this an accident or a suicide attempt? What was it that she saw in Edinburgh that so upset her? Her family gathers at her bedside as Alice drifts through varying levels of consciousness and her story is revealed in a series of flashbacks.

When I first started this book I made the mistake of picking it up now and again when I had a few minutes to spare. I read about sixty pages in this way and realised that I had no idea of who was who or what was happening. Events are not presented chronologically, you see. Sometimes Alice is the narrator, but at other times the story is told in the third person. If you are going to read this book, allow yourself an hour to get into it. When I did this the characters of Elspeth, Alice's grandmother and Ann, her mother, became distinct. Once you're into the story the stream-of-consciousness device works well, but it fails miserably unless you're willing to put in the initial time and effort.

Each chapter is short, almost a vignette illustrating a moment in time. They seem to be unconnected but build into a compelling story, almost like a jigsaw being pieced together. Clues are offered as to the eventual picture but each revelation came as a surprise to me. Once I was past those first sixty pages I couldn't put the book down.

Maggie O'Farrell is originally from Northern Ireland, but part of her childhood was spent in Scotland. She draws on this to illustrate the small-town attitudes of North Berwick, where Alice's mother, Ann, spends her married life. Ann does not love, has never loved, her husband. What love she has is given obsessively to her children or to another man. The extremes of her emotions are portrayed exquisitely along with the differing attitudes within the family to her infidelity. We see the extent to which her sins affect Alice.

There are some big issues tackled in this novel. Loss (of lovers or family ties) and grief are the main themes, but religious differences, infidelity and strained relationships between parent and child are all introduced. They're handled sensitively and with a maturity of understanding. There's a wonderful eye for detail too, such as Ann's blush when she realises why the three mirrors in her adult daughter's bedroom are angled in quite the way that they are.

O'Farrell's characterisation of women is perfect, but the touch is perhaps less sure with men. The three women - Elspeth, Ann and Alice - dominate the novel, but John, Alice's lover and Ben, her father, are less rounded. As a study of loss and grief it's exceptional. It made me examine how I would feel if I lost my husband, to the extent that I experienced an overwhelming sense of relief when I heard his voice. I realised too that if I was not in a stable relationship I would be very reluctant to take the chance for fear of what I might lose. This wouldn't be a book which I would find easy reading at the end of a relationship. The Kleenex would be too expensive.

Once you've come to terms with the stream-of-consciousness telling of the story you'll find that the book is very easy to read. It's all written in simple language - Maggie O'Farrell isn't an author who needs to prove her intelligence by using big words. The writing is elegant, faultless and confident.

I suspect that this is a book that a woman is more likely to enjoy than a man. It's a love story, albeit with certain twists. I wouldn't expect my husband to enjoy it, although he would certainly appreciate the way it's written. On the other hand it's far better than chick-lit. I've recently read (and enjoyed) The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and there are similar themes - loss and grief - and part of the story being told by a character who is not present in the accepted sense of the word. They're both first novels too. This book is much better and lacks the sentimentality of The Lovely Bones.

I'm recommending this book. I'm not going to recommend her other books - "My Lover's Lover" and "The Distance Between Us" - both of which I borrowed from the library and was unable to finish. Maggie O'Farrell has a real talent and I hope that she will in time live up to the promise of this first novel.

If you enjoyed this book you might also appreciate Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. The style is similar and it's also a debut novel.

Booklists.jpg After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell is in the Top Ten Books For Your Auntie.

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Buy After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell at


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lhine said:

I found this book hard to get into and understand at first also, but after the story developed it was hard to put down and well worth the read. I agree that you had to concentrate to follow the story, but the characters were all well developed and the story engrossing.

I don't agree that it is similar in style to Behind the Scenes at the Museum which is also a very good book but features more humour and it written in a different style.

Stacey McCabe said:

I read this review and actaully have to say the book I loved but the review as a mistake in it whish i must correct. The grandmother in this book is calles 'Elspeth,' not 'Eleanor,' as rhe writer of this review states.

This book is an amazing read however, I wasn't keen on it at first thinking it was od but once I'd got into it I realised it was one the best stories I'd ever read. The style of this book is great, i really like how it flips from ast to present, I feel this how we would tell a story or how many conversations would go or more even how our minds works. It also reflects Alice's state of mind. This book is so true to life and deals mundane daily things in a realistic manner and it this that makes the story and the sadness so much more moving. The characters are everyday people with normal problems. An amzing read.

Sue replied:

Thanks for pointing that out - I've now corrected it. And yes - I agree that it's amazing.

Emily Robertson said:

I finished this book within the last fifteen minutes and felt the urge to look up reviews as I wasn't ready to finish it. I agree with all the other comments,its hard to get into when you dont commit. But once you do, you find yourself unable to put it down or constantly thinking about finding ten minutes where you can sneak in a chapter or two, such as my train journey to college. After john died, I had to keep having small breaks as I was crying too much to read. It was wriiten in such a raw and moving way. I dont think it would have the same effect on someone who isn't in a relationship as the most painful thing is, you relate it to your life, and it is so true to the emotions you can only imagine to feel if you were to loose you husband/partner. I loved the structure, I felt as if i really understood each character in great depth, especially Ann and Alice. The progression of Aice and Johns relationship was written so beautifulling, it actually made me miss my boyfriend! Maggie O'Farrell built a little world for me to escape to. I was so consumed that I was regularly late for college or to meet friends, i thougherly recommend this book to anyone.

I think it shares similaritys to 'The Time Travellors Wife' due to the structure and themes.