The question of how to reconcile the past is at the centre of Jemma Wayne’s debut novel “After Before”. What’s fascinating about this book is the way the author approaches this dilemma through the lives of three very different kinds of women. Emily is a young, Rwandan-born woman living in England. She struggles to survive on low-paid work and lives in social housing. Having abandoned her real name Emilienne because English people have difficulty pronouncing it, she’s effectively invented herself anew and blocks out memories of her past as much as possible. Vera is another young woman who is a recently-converted Christian trying to live her life on the straight and narrow. During her early life she lived a more reckless existence that was freely-sexual and drug-fuelled. She desperately wants to be the kind of virtuous individual worthy of her extremely virtuous fiancé Luke, but she’s hampered by a horrific secret from her past. Luke’s mother Lynn is in her late 50s and recently been diagnosed as being in the advanced stages of a terminal cancer. She filters her disappointment about all the compromises she’s made in her life into her hidden passion for painting. The stories of these women’s lives twine around each other as they variously come together and change the way each woman understands her own past.
It’s interesting how Wayne effectively captures the way individuals maintain a constant narrative about their lives in the present. Vera likes to believe herself to be the protagonist of a larger story being viewed and commented upon: “If Vera’s life were a film, there would be a lot of voiceovers.” She’s making earnest efforts to become what she understands to be a better person, yet she can’t fully believe in her reformed self because of the hidden guilt she carries over the (moral and legal) crimes she believes she’s committed. Rather than seeking out the truth about the effect of her actions, she distances herself from her past and mentally self-flagellates herself which prevents her from becoming the person she really wants to be or have an authentic relationship with the man who has asked her to marry him.
Lynn has very conflicted feelings about her future daughter-in-law Vera. She’s particularly offended by the way her sons have decided she requires help in her house given her medical condition. Vera is elected to spend her days with her, yet all Lynn wants to do is foster her secret passion for painting which Vera’s presence prevents. There are incredibly socially-awkward scenes where the two women try to make conversation over civilized cups of tea. Painting is the way in which Lynn is trying to make up for lost time. She feels that she’s sacrificed any prospect of a career or making a cultural impact upon the world by spending her life raising two sons. No doubt many people can relate to the way Lynn feels proud of the family she’s nurtured, yet trapped by the domesticity of it. Looking back she hilariously decides that: “She should never have taken such joy in baking.” Although Lynn comes across initially as a venomous individual she’s gradually shown to be a woman with an enormous amount of compassion. Lynn reminded me very much of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge. She’s someone who can be very hard and difficult on the outside. Yet, she harbours a tremendous kind of empathy and has an instinct for recognizing damaged individuals who need help. This is the case when Emily comes to care for her as part of a social home caring program after Lynn and Vera come into conflict with each other. Lynn senses that this girl has a difficult past which she is mentally blocking out.
Emily attempts to use her isolation and the anonymity of living in the city to forget the past. But simply coming to a new country and taking on a new identity doesn’t save someone from the physical and mental scars of experience. As the author astutely observes: “real rescue wasn’t possible simply by escaping a place. Memories weren’t rooted in the soil.” It’s heartbreaking the way that Emily tries to level out her life so she has no prospects for joy or sorrow in her life. She shuts herself out from possibility because “The good is only a reminder of the bad. The past is a reminder of what has been. She can only survive by not thinking. And therefore the not seeing has to be borne.” But when Emily can’t stop herself from encountering things which vividly recall incidents and people from her past she is jolted into an awareness of what she’s lived through. What she has survived through is terrifyingly awful and most readers will probably be aware of what is coming, yet it feels necessary to face this past as a way of progressing forward as a fully aware individual.
One of the great qualities of reading fiction is that it allows you to access complex events from history on a very human level. When reading figures on the news or historical accounts about the upwards of a million people killed in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide it’s difficult to feel the full gravity of this catastrophic event. The author brings this mass conflict to a personal level where we read about Emily living a normal adolescent life in her Rwandan town. Like many young people, her attention is mostly taken up by her family, school, friends and the early burgeoning of romantic feelings. She is aware of the growing conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, but this is just another story which is talked about: “stories, the kind that hovered tauntingly on the brim of their consciousness but they would never truly see: like monsters, or landing on the moon, or America.” Because it has no effect upon her day to day life, this tension between ethnic groups is as unreal to her as any myth or well-reported global events. Therefore, when we read Emily’s memories about armed Hutu civilians and militia coming to her door the shock feels all the more real because her life is so relatable and close to our own. Most strikingly, there is not only the horror of being in the centre of such a perilous situation, but the devastating betrayal of seeing one’s friends and neighbours trying to kill you and your family. It makes for very distressing reading yet it is admirable the way the author so effectively situates the reader in Emily’s position to understand how she came to be so traumatized and distrustful of allowing people into her life.
The way in which these three women’s lives play out through their encounters with each other is oftentimes surprising. By doing so Wayne gives an interesting perspective on the way identity is a constantly shifting process of sifting between one’s past, self-perception and the way others perceive you. Emily most keenly feels a crisis over this where she wonders “What was she? The only thing she wanted to be was human, and sometimes she wasn’t even sure about that.” It’s through different levels of interaction and compassion that the characters in this novel come to a more resolute understanding of themselves and feel fully human. The author is tremendously sympathetic towards her characters and skilled at creating an involving story so the reader cares about them as well. However, there are a few occasions where the scenes feel stretched and overlong. And occasionally Wayne’s prose style goes slightly sour from unnecessary flourishes such a scene describing the water in Venice: “She and Luke bounce malleably between the two worlds of density and translucence.” But overall the author has a keen sense of distilling observations about human nature into artful and poignant sentences. There were many times I felt emotionally affected by the story of “After Before” and it’s an accomplished brave first novel.