The good: Incredibly emotional, thoughtful and gripping.
The not-so-good: My mind was spinning at the end – I wanted to know what was going to happen, yet didn’t in a way!
Why I chose it: On the Baileys Prize 2015 longlist.
Publisher: Legend Press
Setting: England and Rwanda
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
The Baileys Prize longlist this year has been wonderful for me – without it, I would never have found the gem that is After Before by Jemma Wayne. This book is intense – it has all the feelings condensed within its pages and on finishing it, I didn’t want to leave the world it had created. The story is difficult, painful and beautiful and something you can analyse in your mind for hours afterwards. The ending is left somewhat open – we don’t know what choices the characters will make, only the direction they are currently heading in but there’s implications for the future based on their past actions.
After Before focuses on three main female characters, disconnected initially from each other, but who will become increasingly involved in each other’s lives as the novel progresses. First, there’s Emilienne (known as Emily). She’s a refugee from Rwanda after the atrocities there and for reasons unknown, has moved out of her aunt and uncle’s house into a little flat of her own. She’s haunted by images of the atrocities she saw at home, but it determined to do something more than clean with her life. She decides to become a carer to help other people.
Vera has done something terrible – so terrible, she can’t tell anyone and the only proof she has is a scrap of paper in her purse. She’s converted to Christianity and is trying to find her faith, to become as good a person as her fiancé Luke. He is devout and pious – but what would happen if he found out her horrible truth? Would he still love her? Luke finds Vera’s past sins that he knows about difficult enough to deal with, but who can she turn to? Certainly not Luke’s mother, Lynn, who greets the news of their engagement with news of her own – she has cancer and there’s nothing to be done. Lynn struggles with the sight of Vera. She’s everything that Lynn never had – a career, beauty and most of all, something she can never get back – youth. So when Vera tells Lynn in an attempt to gain her confidence that she was pregnant once, Lynn automatically tells her church parish. But Lynn doesn’t know that’s only the beginning of Vera’s horrible truth. In the rejection of Vera, little does Lynn know she’s driven Vera back to the man who started it all…
The relationship between Vera and her future mother in law Lynn is awkward to watch. It’s full of every suspicion, guilt, missed opportunity and more. What’s worse is that Vera has no idea of Lynn’s jealousy (Luke was always her favourite child; her other son John is a bit ‘strange’ in ways she’s not keen to explore). Vera is desperate to atone in any way possible, even if that means looking after Lynn at home. Naturally, it doesn’t go well and Emily enters Vera’s life. The relationship between them is everything that Lynn’s relationship with Vera isn’t. Lynn becomes interested in Emily as a person and is eager to help her overcome her demons. It is through Lynn that the reader finds out what happened in Rwanda to Emily and there is a glimpse of the implications to Emily’s future.
After Before is a powerful, emotional and intense novel that will have the reader questioning their values. How terrible does a deed have to be before it’s unforgivable? What does faith mean? How do you atone for your sins? Should you forgive those who hurt you? Will having it ‘all’ really make a difference to a life? The reactions of the characters to different events is fascinating – some reacted exactly how I would have done, others acted in a way I could never have dreamed up. And the finale…wow! One episode has the impact to act on all of the other character’s lives – Emily, Luke, Vera and possibly Vera’s ex, Charlie. What will happen? My mind spins at the thought, but I know the future is not going to be the happily ever after for these characters. And how could it be? They’re flawed and complex, yet brave enough to deal with what life throws at them.
This is a beautifully crafted book; I really hope it goes on to make the Baileys Prize shortlist.