Thursday 19 April 2007

Afterwards

Rachel Seiffert

God, isn’t post traumatic stress disorder really screwed up? Isn’t it funny how people in relationships never really tell each other the truth, even though it’d be easier all round? Aren’t old people really, really wise? And isn’t it weird how an oppressive military regime isn’t just dehumanising to its subjects but, like, totally dehumanising to the oppressors as well?

It’s easy to be glib (and Lord knows it’s served my journalistic career well) but Afterwards is a fairly simple story, told in a fairly simple style. It covers the brief relationship between two thirtysomethings who meet down the pub: Alice, a physiotherapist mourning the loss of the grandmother who part-raised her, and Joseph, who’s rebuilding his life after a traumatic period spent in the British Army in Northern Ireland. We learn much about Alice’s life, her relationship with her teenage single mother and absent father, her worries about her widowed, emotionally stunted grandfather, David. Until late on we learn very little about Joseph despite his increasingly erratic behaviour, which finally tears them apart.

Haunting both lives is the spectre of deeds done in the course of war: Joseph in Ireland, David fighting insurgents in 1950s Kenya. Both incidents are relatively mundane as war goes (David dropped bombs which may have killed people, Joseph shot a terrorist who was about to shoot his friend) but given the morally-ambiguous nature of the conflicts they occurred in, both found it difficult to reconcile with their consciences. The parallels to the future for soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are obvious though implicit, and Seiffert paints a rather bleak future for them. While David could rely on his marriage and sense of duty to help control his trauma, Joseph is only able to sustain a series of short-lived affairs, normally book-ended with a nervous breakdown and violent outbursts.

Given that Seiffert generally steers clear of the politics (treatment and support of veterans is simply dismissed as ineffective in Joseph’s case, while she goes no further in denouncing the occupation of Northern Ireland than suggesting the soldiers were a rum lot), Afterwards is an observation of the simple tragedies that ruin lives. The problem is that the prose is so sparse and stilted, and the background of the characters so limited, that it is difficult to forge any emotional attachment to them. Of course, in a book about how poor communication can ruin relationships this is probably deliberate, but it is a dubious and ultimately unsuccessful tactic.

There’s an interesting point made about the changing nature of warfare in modern times: it is the elderly David in a propeller plane who was able to potentially kill scores of faceless individuals, while Joseph was face-to-face with his non-uniformed enemy in a counter-insurgency war. Seiffert is also pleasantly understated in detailing Joseph’s breakdowns, relying on suggestion rather than histrionics, and never lapses into cheap sentimentality. But the overall effect is a slight and unsatisfying read: much like watching 9 Songs with the sound off and the sex scenes edited out. In Afterwards the hero is Alice, who is able to brush off the traumas of life and carry on, having learnt a little but nothing significant. Much the same could be said of the reader having finished the novel but, like in life, such an approach shouldn’t win you many awards.


Fiction

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