Angela Young is a writer who edits and proofreads non-fiction when she isn't writing fiction. Her first novel, Speaking of Love, is shortlisted for World Book Day's Book to Talk About; she completed Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers for BBC Books, to tie-in with the television series, and several of her short stories for children have been published in America. Angela is working on her second novel: a modern version of Beauty and the Beast. Here she discusses Maggie O'Farrell's After You'd Gone.
Angela Young on After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
I was given a proof copy of Maggie O'Farrell's first novel, After You'd Gone, in 1999. I can't remember why, now. It wasn't for review because I'm not a professional reviewer, and I didn't read it until 2002, at least two years after its publication, when a friend said how good she'd thought it. But when I picked it up I couldn't stop reading: I read it in a weekend. There was one point where the power of O'Farrell's writing had me sobbing and laughing at the same time: this is the only book that has had that double effect on me, but O'Farrell's visceral, spare writing style carries such emotional truth that it pulls deep emotional responses from the reader.
Later, After You'd Gone gave me the confidence to write my own first novel, Speaking of Love, achronologically, from various points of view and in both the third and the first person. O'Farrell does all these things in After You'd Gone, but so skilfully that you never lose the plot, and one of the reasons that you don't is that whenever the point of view changes or the chronology slips, O'Farrell maintains a connecting thread: sometimes it's in the subject matter, sometimes it's memory, sometimes it's done simply through sticking with the same character at different times in her life, sometimes its through place. The thing is, that the complicated structure works because it shows - but never tells - how the past informs the present, and although by the end of the weekend I felt as if I'd been through an emotional mangle, I didn't mind. It was worth it. More than worth it.
Later I wrote to O'Farrell to tell her how much the book had affected me - and given me the courage to write achronologically myself. (I don't think good news is conveyed often enough and whenever I've loved a book I write to say so.) She wrote back, memorably, 'I've always thought chronology was overrated'.
The plot of After You'd Gone is simple, but one of the quotations at the front implies its depth: 'The past falls open anywhere' (Michael Donaghy), and that's exactly what happens in After You'd Gone. It begins with the arresting line, 'The day she would try to kill herself, she realised winter was coming again.' And, further down the first page: 'It had been so long since she'd cared for them [the plants] that the parched soil didn't absorb the water, and it collected on the surface in accusing, mercuried drops.'
I was hooked by the poignancy of the plants' dried earth and their juxtaposition with Alice, the heroine's, state of mind; and I know that I imbibed a minute dose of hope from those 'accusing, mercuried drops' - hope that Alice might not succeed in killing herself. These are, of course, writerly devices, but so skilfully deployed that this writer was held in thrall to their effects and it was only when I re-read the book to see how O'Farrell had done it that I recognized the devices that run like underground rivers beneath her plotting, storytelling and character-building magic. I like that. I don't like to be made conscious of a writer's technical skill when I am reading; I simply want a good story told in beautiful language and then, later, I will go back to see how it was done.
At the end of the Prologue you are left standing on the edge of a precipice: you don't know whether Alice succeeded in killing herself and you also have a strong sense that she didn't quite mean to.
The opening pages of Part One are vignettes from Alice's life: scenes from her childhood are intercut with scenes between Alice and John, the man she falls in love with. The scenes are short and written in a spare style, but they have extraordinary power because we know that this precious life might be about to be cut short. There is a scene, on page 17 of my proof copy, where the young Alice paints stripes of wet earth on to her body and scares the neighbours by roaring like a tiger. There is another in which she sets fire to the curtains. And in between these is a tender scene between Alice and John, in a café, before they make love for the first time. As you read you long to know that this lively, funny, spirited child, this beautiful adult woman, will not die too young. You long for her to live because you have fallen in love with her.
And yet you dread that a terrible thing is going to happen just as, on page 256, Alice wonders, 'Why isn't life better designed so it warns you when terrible things are about to happen?'
I can't write more about this book without giving away what happens, but I urge you to read After You'd Gone for its understanding of how memory both serves and fails us; how the things we do and don't say affect the rest of our lives; how love can be killed by prejudice and how the way we long to control what we can never hope to control, controls us. I defy anyone who picks this book up not to find several reasons why it cannot possibly be put down until it is finished.
And it has the most moving last paragraph I think I have ever read: it had me in tears just now and I haven't read the book for at least three years. This is the book I would save from fire or flood... although I don't want to tempt fate: I'd like my house to remain safe, standing and unharmed, so that I can read this unsettling, moving, passionate, glorious novel again and again inside it.