A monochrome landscape
Charlotte Moore AFTERWARDS by Rachel Seiffert Heinemann, £14.99, pp. 327, ISBN 978043401186X © £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Alice, the result of a teenage mistake, was brought up largely by her grandparents. She's a nurse, earnest, affectionate, keen to do the right thing by everyone. Her grandmother has died, and Alice is shocked by how difficult it is to communicate with her grandfather now that this warm female conduit has gone. She tries asking about his past; he was in the RAF in Kenya in the Fifties at the time of the Mau Mau insurrection. He witnessed things there that he's never talked about. What horrors will be unleashed when he breaks his silence?
Joseph is a decorator, good at his job, but strangely unsettled for a man of 30. He meets Alice in a pub; she likes his smile. His flat's almost unfurnished; he drifts in and out of his sister's house. Soon he drifts into Alice's. He's nice; she tells him things and he listens, but she doesn't get much information in return. There are gaps, absences, withdrawals. His sister seems to keep an anxious eye on him Like Alice's grandfather, Joseph has an undisclosed past.
Alice knows that Joseph was in the army, in Northern Ireland. What she does not know is that he shot a man dead at a checkpoint, in front of his wife and children. Joseph evades her questions; she's getting too close. So's her grandfather. Joseph's redecorating his house for him, and the old man chooses him as a confidant. It's a disastrous mistake.
Rachel Seiffert's prose is pared down, almost colourless. There's no authorial voice. She moves her characters carefully and unobtrusively towards the climax. We watch apparently ordinary people making small moves in and out of each other's lives, but we sense the tension underneath.
This is an intelligent, responsible novel about repression and failures of communication. The portrayal of Joseph, a potentially good man who has failed to defeat his demons, is especially convincing. The trouble is that large sections of it are quite dull. Seiffert reproduces the minutiae of quotidian plans and decisions so faithfully that reading the novel is like sitting in a train and finding yourself the involuntary confidant of your garrulous fellowtraveller.
September came and Alice was allowed to take some time off again: she'd used up most of her last year's holiday looking after her gran and hadn't been away in ages. Joseph planned a week in Scotland with her for the end of the month, and Alice booked a train up to Yorkshire first, to see her mum, spend a bit of time with her out on the Dales, at her step-dad's place. Joseph was due to finish off a job for Stan, so he wouldn't be able to join them this time. He had some free days, but they were in the middle of the week, and he thought he'd spend them working at David's.
That sort of narrative is acceptable only from one's nearest and dearest, when one really does care about which days off they've got, but Seiffert doesn't manage to turn dutiful Alice into the reader's honorary nearest and dearest. About three quarters of the book is like that. The rest — mainly the army bits — are taut and dramatically effective, but overall this is a novel one respects rather than loves.
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