After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
Alice is a woman very much in love after a terrible tragedy happens to her. The book starts with the line: “The day she would try to kill herself, she realized winter was coming again”. With an opening like that, there’s no way you won’t want to read on, and this perfect combination of foreboding and the mundane could easily become a classic “gotcha” opening sentence. But this book isn’t just about Alice and why she would want to kill herself. It’s also about her mother and sisters and even her grandmother. Of course, there are other characters involved, and they are a kaleidoscope of women with their strengths, weaknesses and the usual things that life throws at them, and how all these things shaped their lives.
As a debut novel, I can see instantly why O’Farrell became such a huge success. The language here is stunningly beautiful, intelligent and evocative. O’Farrell knows how to show the reader what her characters are going through, and that creates an intimacy with them that blank descriptions can never achieve. What makes this even more powerful is that instead of going chronologically, she starts with the result of this suicide attempt – Alice being in a coma. This becomes a central focal point around which events of the past connect with the present. In this, O’Farrell hands us an intricate jigsaw puzzle, while giving us one piece at a time, until only at the end, can we see the whole picture. This is part and parcel of O'Farrell's unique voice.
Having read O’Farrell’s fourth before reading this one, and I can see how she has developed as a writer. Here I noticed those little spots where she allowed herself to tell instead of show. I also could see and where she needed a more forceful internal editor. For instance, watching Alice suffer through the pain she’s in after the tragedy was just a bit too much. This is especially true because we’re not sure what that this tragedy is until we're about ¾ through the book. Although I liked how she kept us guessing, at one point I found myself saying “okay, we get it, so could you please tell us what happened already?” and that’s not such a good thing. This is the reason why I can’t give this book a full five stars.
While this is a book about women, it’s hardly chick-lit - at least not in the classic sense. By that, I mean the thankful absence of frivolities like fashion and shopping and parties, so we can concentrate on what makes these ordinary women’s lives into ones that fascinate us. And yes, these women are basically very ordinary. They don’t have perfect lives, jobs, homes or husbands. If you saw them on the street, you might never notice them, as their beauty isn't noteworthy. They are normal people that go through the types of things that anyone can recognize. This together with compelling language, the fascinating way she develops a story and depth in which she develops her characters bring her solidly into the realm of contemporary fiction. If you’re a guy who can appreciate that, you’ll enjoy O’Farrell’s work as much as the ladies will.
So yes, this is an excellent debut novel, and it is no wonder O’Farrell became instantly popular after its publication. It isn’t as good as her later ones, since it could have used some paring down to make it just a bit tighter and pointed. But her style is enticingly strong, her characters are vivid and how she weaves the past into the present is practically lyrical. This is also a surprisingly fast read, and you’ll find yourself soaking it up like a sponge. So while I’m giving it four out of five stars, I still highly recommend this novel as an excellent introduction to Maggie O’Farrell’s work in general.
After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)