Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Who said that?

Women from three generations of the Raike family are followed in the novel After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell. There's grandmother Elspeth, mother Ann and daughter Alice. Rather than just choosing to tell the story from one character's viewpoint, or allowing each character to tell her story in a linear fashion, the novel jumps constantly between narrators and time periods. The novel unfolds in a series of short episodes, each revealing a bit more of the story.

At first, I was very annoyed by the jagged and wrenching story-telling. One page will be talking about the grandmother's traumatic abandonment by her missionary parents as if it is happening to the 7 year old girl in the present. The next page will be happening "now" to the grown-up Alice, who is unconscious (but not unaware) in a hospital. Then we'll hear a story from Alice's childhood, perhaps from her viewpoint, perhaps from that of her mother, and so on. I nearly gave up in frustration many times, but eventually, I got over the annoyance of attempting to figure out which "she" was being referred to in the various sections. There was also some of the "Barbara Vine effect," which I always dread -- many, many references to "that horrible thing I saw which changed everything" and naturally, you have to keep reading to figure out what it is.

A major problem is that there were many of the small scenes thrown in that didn't seem to add anything at all to the story. For instance, when Alice's parents are visiting her in the hospital, her mother goes outside for a cigarette. It takes nearly 2 pages for O'Farrell to describe this. We follow along as Ann gets to the outside, fumbles with her smoking materials, and looks at the windows from the outside to figure out which room is her daughter's. There is also a lot of back and forth between Alice and her boyfriend that goes like this:

Boyfriend: I have something that I need to tell you.

Alice: What is it?

Boyfriend: I can't tell you right now, but I will tomorrow, I promise.

Alice: If you don't tell me now, I won't meet you tomorrow.

Boyfriend: I can't, but I promise that I'll explain tomorrow.

Alice: Why can't you tell me now?

Boyfriend: It's complicated.

Alice: I don't care, if you need to tell me, just tell me.

And so on . . . and on . . . and even when they meet the next day there's more around and around before he finally spits it out (and then there's no explanation as to why he couldn't have done it immediately).

In short, I got the feeling that either the author was being paid per word (do they do that anymore?) or else she had to deliver a certain number of pages to the publisher. At any rate, the book had many, many unnecessary and extensive scenes that could have been cut. All in all, a disappointing book.

Final verdict for After You'd Gone: Two Gherkins for an intriguing concept, but an ultimately exasperating and unsatisfying novel.

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