It’s not often I come across a novel where my opinion of that book transforms so much over the course of reading it. By and large, I abide by the fifty page rule. If I’m not getting much out of the book by that point I put it aside. Yet some novels only reveal their logic and reasoning as the story becomes fully formed. I felt this way about Colm Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn” especially. It’s beautifully written, but I didn’t really see the point until towards the end when I was suddenly absolutely gripped and realized what a brilliant book it is. “After the Parade” begins with an arresting and original premise. As the book opens we meet a man in his early forties named Aaron leaving his partner Walter, an older man that he’s been in a relationship with for over twenty years. Aaron embarks from this point on a journey of self discovery into reconciling his own past and finding the strength to fearlessly create a different kind of future for himself.
Lori Ostlund is an engaging writer who creates lively, complex and deeply-sympathetic characters. More than anything, this is a book dedicated to outsiders. It pays tribute and memorializes the struggle of people who feel ostracized from mainstream society because they are different or, as one character perceives them, a “band of misfits.” There are characters who are overweight, queer, Jewish, stricken with long-term illnesses and foreign students learning English as a second language. But the novel doesn’t portray these characters in a way that is only interested in serving the plot. They are written as fully-rounded people who possess their own flaws and make their own mistakes. It also skilfully shows the way projections about people impact an individual’s own psychology about the way they see themselves: “Once people thought they knew you, it was almost impossible to change their minds, which meant that it was almost impossible to change yourself.” One of the most compelling characters and the person that changes the most is Aaron’s mother Dolores who seems at first to be rather meek housewife living under an abusive patriarchal figure, but who develops into a deeply complex, conflicted and compelling individual. I was driven to read more of this book because I found the characters so engaging.
What I found difficult about the process of reading this novel were the abrupt time shifts which occur so frequently throughout. Scenes move back and forth between the present, past and many points in between. Going back to Aaron’s earliest childhood the reader learns in pieces about traumatic events which divided his family and led him to form a relationship with Walter. It can be somewhat confusing to travel in your imagination over these constantly shifting landscapes in time. It made me long for a linear story about Aaron’s life and wonder why Ostlund didn’t compose the novel this way. It’s only later on in the novel that Aaron’s changing personality shows why these memories of the past are spread throughout the narrative. The past informs the present in some important ways so it can’t be composed in a straight line. The significance around events at the beginning take on a deeper, more nuanced meaning once the reader understands the way he eventually developed into a man who abandons a loving, supportive relationship. The way this novel is composed makes a bigger statement about individual responsibility and survival than if it had been written as a straightforward coming of age story.
I won’t deny that part of what drew me to this novel was the personal connection I felt with its protagonist. Being a man in my late thirties, it’s easy for me to relate to Aaron. He’s at a point in his life where he feels like a full adult and independent from his experiences growing up, yet he still finds himself haunted by his upbringing and curious about how the repercussions of certain events still influence his current behaviour. However, I don’t think you need to have such personal parallels with Aaron to get just as much as I did out of this novel. It shows how we often like to blame others for the situation we’re in. At one point a character confronts Aaron stating “You wanted Walter to be wrong so you didn’t have to be, but there isn’t always one person who’s right and another who’s wrong. Sometimes – usually – it’s not that easy.” “After the Parade” demonstrates through its powerful story the way individuals grapple with the grey areas of life. Like all the characters in this heartfelt novel, we must negotiate with ourselves on a daily basis about how much we’re willing to compromise and whether we have the strength to fully face an uncertain future without fear.