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Pickle Me This

March 10, 2007

Afterwards by Rachel Seiffert

Though a startlingly original novel, Rachel Seiffer’s Afterwards brought other works to mind, in the most flattering way. Seiffert’s sparing prose made me think of Jon McGregor’s in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, its consideration of grandparents is similar to Alayna Munce’s When I Was Young and In My Prime, and the beautifully-written portrayal an English working class ethos reminded me of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Which, again, is not to say that Seiffert’s novel is derivative, but rather there is so much going on within it, a review could take a wide variety of approaches.

I’ll keep my approach wide. Here we find prose as lovely as the story it tells. Seibbert’s omission of all unnecessary words and discription is so finely tuned that she matches the way our thoughts proceed, and reading along the page we miss nothing. She shows a particular mastery of providing the best example with which to illuminate an entire character, which is so difficult to do . But the story too– a love story, in which the love is not at the forefront. And each character comes into this story with their own backstory (as people tend to do) and it all ties up together in the end, with such a marvelous cohesion that even the unresolved ending is somehow satisfactory.

Here is the story of Alice, who meets Joseph. Her grandmother has recently died, and she is also taking care to visit regularly with her grandfather, David, a difficult man, and she is curious to know about his time in the British Imperial Army in Kenya in the 1950s. She is bothered by what he keeps from her, and she begins to see a similar reticence in her new boyfriend Joseph, who can identify with Alice’s grandfather’s situation through his experiences in the British army himself, having served in Northern Ireland. Not that the two men connect easily, by any means, and their commonalities eventually surface in an explosive and disturbing climax. And Alice stays outside of all of this. As readers, we are privy to the backstories, but Alice never gets to know, and her coming to terms with the impossibility of knowing is one of the intriguing themes of the story, and a neat twist on love. The flipside of that is how Joseph and David deal with their isolation, and whether or not telling is any release after all. What do you do with the past once it’s over?

No answers, of course, but Seiffert gives us pages and pages on which to ruminate.

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