There are advantages and disadvantages to reading a first novel by an author after you've read their later works. When I went back to read Maggie O'Farrell's debut book "After You'd Gone" I realized this more fully than before. The story here is about Alice, a woman very much in love who has recently had a terrible tragedy happen to her. The book starts with the line: "The day she would try to kill herself, she realized winter was coming again". With an opening like that, there's no way you won't want to read on, and this perfect combination of foreboding and the mundane could easily become a classic "gotcha" opening sentence.
But this book isn't just about Alice and why she would want to kill herself. It's also about her mother and sisters and even her grandmother. Of course, there are other characters involved, but what we're given here is a kaleidoscope of these women - their strengths, their weaknesses and the usual things that life throws at them, and how all these things shaped their lives.
As a debut novel, I can see instantly why O'Farrell became such a huge success. The language here is stunningly beautiful, intelligent and evocative. O'Farrell knows how to show the reader what her characters are going through, and that creates an intimacy with them that blank descriptions can never achieve. What makes this even more powerful is that instead of going chronologically, she uses the result of this suicide attempt - Alice being in a coma - to become a central focal point around which events of the past are brought fourth to connect with the present. In this, O'Farrell hands us an intricate jigsaw puzzle, while giving us one piece at a time, until only at the end, can we see the whole picture. After now having read three out of four of O'Farrell's books, I can now identify this as being part and parcel of her unique voice.
Because I read O'Farrell's fourth book first, I can see how she's developed as a writer. What I noticed are those little spots where she allowed herself to tell instead of show. I also could see and where she needed a more forceful internal editor. For instance, watching Alice suffer through the pain she's in after the tragedy was just a bit too much. This is especially true because we're not sure what that tragedy is exactly until about ¾ through the book. While I liked how she kept us guessing, at one point I found myself saying "okay, we get it, so could you please tell us what happened already?" and that's not such a good thing. This is the reason why I can't give this book a full five stars.
I should mention that while this is a book about women, it's hardly chick-lit - at least not in the classic sense. By that I mean we are spared the frivolities of things like fashion and shopping and parties, and are able to concentrate on what makes these ordinary women's lives into ones that fascinate us. And yes, these women are basically very ordinary. They don't have perfect lives, jobs, homes or husbands, and if you saw them on the street, you might never notice them. They are normal people that go through the types of things that everyone can recognize. This together with compelling language, the fascinating way she develops a story and depth in which she develops her characters bring her solidly into the realm of contemporary fiction. If you're a guy who can appreciate that, you'll enjoy O'Farrell's work as much as the ladies will.
So yes, this is an excellent debut novel, and it is no wonder O'Farrell became instantly popular after its publication. It isn't as good as her last one, since it could have used some paring down to make it just a bit tighter and pointed. But her style is enticingly strong, her characters are vivid and how she weaves the past into the present is practically lyrical. This is also a surprisingly fast read, and you'll find yourself soaking it up like a sponge. So while I'm giving it four out of five stars, I still highly recommend this novel as an excellent introduction to Maggie O'Farrell's work in general.
Davida Chazan © May, 2010
Maggie O'Farrell's web page can be found at http://www.maggieofarrell.com/ and you can buy this new from Amazon for £4.00 or through their marketplace from 1p.
Maggie's newest novel "The Hand that First Held Mine" has just been released and I'll read it after I get my copy of "The Distance Between Us".
Details from Amazon:
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Headline Review; New Ed edition (11 Aug 2008)
" Not once did they ask me what had prompted me to set fire to the curtains..."
This is a book I found on my daughter's bookshelf when I was having a mooch. Something about the cover and the wording on the back made it sound intriguing, so I decided to read it. I finished it within two days!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maggie O'Farrell was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She now lives in London.
'After You'd Gone' is her first novel.
Alice Raikes boards a train at King's Cross on a spontaneous trip to visit her sisters in Scotland. She calls her sisters whilst on the train, and they are there to meet her off the train when she arrives in Edinburgh.
They all go for a coffee at the station, and during this, Alice goes to the toilet.
When she returns she suddenly announces she has to leave, and leaving her shocked and confused siblings behind, she boards the train back to London. A few hours later she steps off the kerb into the traffic on a busy London road, and ends up in hospital in a coma.
Was this an accident or a suicide attempt? What made Alice leave her sisters in Edinburgh and return to London a few minutes after her arrival?
MY THOUGHTS ON THE BOOK
On the front of the book, is a few words by Esther Freud, of The Guardian, stating the book is 'unashamedly passionate'. I wasn't sure what to expect, and it was what was written on the back of the book which had got my interest. 'Passionate' is not something I am really interested in when reading a book - give me a good thriller anytime!
However, having read the book I don't think I would agree with her 'unashamedly passionate' comment. I would describe it more as 'dark, intriguing, and quite mysterious'.
The book mainly centres around Alice and sometimes is written in the first person, sometimes not.
This is due to the synopsis I described above, as Alice is actually in a coma and her story is told by a series of flashbacks and recollections and also between different levels of consciousness as she seems aware at times of what is going on around her.
There are also parts of the story which feature her family, in particular her mother Ann, and grandmother Elspeth, who each have their own stories to tell and secrets to hide.
Because the story unfolds this way, it does tend to jump around a lot from past to present. The reader is taken back to events both in Ann's and Elspeth's pasts, as well as Alice's, from childhood to the present.
Despite this, I did find the book quite easy to read and it flows really well. I usually dislike a book that jumps about, and I think this is probably a first for me, as I found it did not bother me. The writing style enhances the story, and adds to the mystery and 'dark' atmosphere of the story, and not once did I find myself having to go back a few pages to remind myself of events.
The characters were very well-developed. I found the character of Alice to be quite complex at first but as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that her family life was not as it seemed. From early on there are some strange behaviours from Alice, and she seems to have a better relationship with her grandmother than with her mother.
As Alice grows into adulthood, her life certainly does not lose any of its intensity as she experiences life, love and loss. As events in her life are retold in her recollections, you find you gain a greater understanding of the often complex and intense character she is.
The character of Alice's mother, Ann, was superbly described. Ann is quite a strange woman who comes across as cold and often unfeeling. Ann has a few secrets of her own and I think her story, which slowly unfolds throughout the book, blends really well into the main story, giving the reader just a little glimpse here and there, that everything is not as it seems, and guarantees you will keep turning the pages.
Alice's grandmother, Elspeth who is the mother of Alice's father, Ben, is unsure of her daughter-in-law Ann right from their first meeting. Elspeth's character is depicted as a strong woman who trusts her own judgement and is no fool. Alice, her sisters and parents all live with Elspeth in her home, so not much escapes her attention. She loves her son and her grandchildren, but what is it about Ann that isn't quite right?
Other characters, such as Alice's sisters, boyfriends, and also her father Ben, do not feature as much as the other characters I have mentioned, but are described enough to give the reader an insight into the people they are, and their feelings and personalities.
I was drawn into the story from the very first page, and it was quite hard to put it down, as I found myself wanting to know more, and why things happened the way they did.
The ending was not predictable either, though I did find it quite a sudden ending and wish there had been just a few more pages. That would be my only criticism of this book, but it's only a small one.
I found this to be one of those books that you find yourself thinking about for quite a while after turning the final page.
Overall this is a very well-written book, and a very good first novel from Maggie O'Farrell.
A strangely compelling read!
Beautifully constructed... unashamedly passionate claims the front cover. OH god I thought. Yet another trashy romance novel. Still I opened the front cover and read the opening line "The day she would try to kill herself, she realised winter was coming again." Perhaps not a romance after all.
The novel leaps backwards and forwards in time without warning leaving you re-reading pages as you've just twigged where and when you are to give it some relevance to where you are as opposed to where you thought you were. Its not something you can read late at night when you're tired or with distractions around you.
You'd be forgiven for considering abandoning the book at the end of part one as a completely absurd eclectic and downright random collection of loosely related short stories which don't seem to follow any logical pattern and whose only common link is the books central character Alice. The book lurches between the use of the first and third person as narrative which only adds to the confusion.
If you stick with it long enough to find out why this occurs you end up with a poigniant tale of one womans life and loves as she surfaces in and out of conciousness within a coma. It is incredibly well written but it took me three attempts over several months to get beyond the first 60 pages. Had it not been for a friends insistance that its a fabulous novel I really wouldn't have bothered.
If I had to place this book in a 'genre' I would say it is definitely a mystery or thriller. Whilst it isn't a traditional fast paced crime type thriller, it definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting to know what's going to happen next by feeding you just enough bits of information to keep you hooked and wanting to know more, it is this that drives the book forward and makes it hard to put down, as you're always waiting for a bit more to be revealed.
The story starts with Alice, who is clearly quite troubled as it is, taking an impromptu train journey from London to Edinborough to visit her sisters. Shortly after arriving she goes to the toilet in the station, and witnesses something that causes her to flee Edinborough, and return straight away to London, where upon she steps in front of a car and ends up in a coma.
It is then that through flash backs, and some present day parts, showing Alice's life, her mother; Ann's life, and her Grandmother; Elspeth's life, that we learn Alice's back ground, and rather than everything being kept a mystery until the last chapter, we are slowly fed more and more in little parts to put the puzzle together ourselves, to learn why Alice was acting how she did on the day she ended up in the coma.
The message definitely has a theme of families and secrets, both those kept and those not. It also has a big theme of love and love lost. It shows that damage can be caused, and damage can be limited, by the secrets that are kept.
The book is a very engrossing read. Whilst it didn't have me constantly guessing and second guessing myself by trying to work out what is going to happen, like some mysteries would do, it kept me glued to the book because the way that the story was gradually unraveled worked just as well as keeping everything secret. Yes, you could sort of work out as you were going along where the book was going, but not in a "oh great I already know how this will end by page 5" way, it was the gradual feeding of information that kept you gripped, waiting to know more, and the way it all revealed itself was great. The pacing was perfect, just enough to keep you constantly satisfied and interested, and wanting to know more.
I loved the way it portrayed so many different characters, relationships and the factors that can affect these relationships so well. The characters all felt very real, and there was always understanding behind their actions. I loved the way the book unfolded as I mentioned, the plot was constantly driven and going somewhere, it didn't ever feel like it lost momentum. If you like books that you can't bear to put down because you need to know what is going to unfold next, then this is one for you.
One thing that I found my view differed on, compared with the numerous other reviews of this book on the Internet, is that it didn't reach me emotionally like it was supposed to have. I read so many reviews claiming this as an emotional tear jerker, and I have to say I didn't find that the case whatsoever. I am one to pour out buckets of tears over books, I've been known to actually sob over books, not just the odd tear, but with this I felt nothing of the sort. I can't explain why my view is so different, had I not read so many reviews claiming it was emotional, it wouldn't be something I would have even mentioned, as I wouldn't have realized it was supposed to have been.
The book was very easy to get into, the story started straight away, there was no opening section wasted on building up the characters to an unnecessary amount, which can sometimes get boring, we got to know these characters more as the story progressed, and it kept interest throughout. I was actually glad to finish this book because I don't have time to sleep much as it is (busy life these days lol) yet I still could not help but pick this up before going to sleep thinking "I'll just read one chapter", and then "I'll just read one more" and so on! It is very addictive! My mum read this before me and said the same thing!
The characters were well enough developed to make the story work, and for some people they were obviously developed well enough to send the tear ducts into over drive, and whilst I didn't find the latter happened to me, I did feel that the characters were well rounded, well developed and easy for the reader to relate to and understand. I liked them enough to care what was happening next, or what had previously happened to them to lead them to this point.
They book does jump about a bit, from different time periods, which aren't stated by a date at the beginning, you are just expected to understand where you are as you're reading. It also jumps about from character to character, again, with you just finding out who and what is going on as you read it. Finally it jumps from first person to third person perspective also. My mum did mention the fact it jumps about so much as a slight negative, although nothing major, but it didn't bother me whatsoever. I guess it depends how easy you find it to follow things. If you are not reading this on a regular basis (ie. Picking it up now and then) it might become confusing, but if you're reading a little every night and not going to have forgot what's happening or what's going on, it should be easy enough to follow. I certainly didn't struggle with it.
Something both my mum and I enjoyed was that part of the book was set in Berwick, which we are both familiar with, and it is interesting to hear certain places mentioned that you've been to, and that you can picture in your mind, as well as the small town Berwick values which I feel are portrayed perfectly here. The rest of the book is set in London, and the story flits about between the two. If you have never been to either it wouldn't spoil your enjoyment of the book, but obviously it is interesting when you hear or see about things that you can relate to.
Obviously I'm not going to give away the ending but I will say the very very end did confuse me, but I feel that may just be me, as there is no mention anywhere else of it, and I had to text my mum to ask her something which she soon cleared up, so I think it's just me on that one, as most people understood it perfectly. For me, I would have liked a slightly better ending, but it didn't matter as the book was so great as it was.
This would probably appeal to any adult who likes a good mystery, likes books that look into relationships and families in a realistic way, and just loves a good page turner that you can't bear to put down.
"What are you supposed to do with all the love you have for somebody if that person is no longer there?"
This is the central question of Maggie O'Farrell's debut novel, After You'd Gone.
When Alice Raikes makes an impromptu visit to her childhood home in Scotland she inadvertently witnesses something that turns her world upside down. Shaken and numb, she immediately catches the train back to her home in London where, caught up in her own thoughts, she steps out into a busy London road and is knocked down and consequently plunges into a coma.
But what was it that Alice saw? And was her 'accident' really an accident or did Alice want to end her own life? As her family gather around her, O'Farrell cleverly pieces together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle using a skilfully woven series of flashbacks, moving seamlessly from past back to the present. The novel is essentially a tale of three generations of women: Alice, Ann (her mother), and Elspeth (her Grandmother). We have very 21st Century themes, such as religious oppression in an increasingly atheist age, alongside themes which have been part of the human race throughout history- love at first sight, adultery and unbearable loss. But at the most basic level, this novel is about love and whether the joy that we experience when we love is worth the agony that it brings when we lose it.
Maggie O'Farrell has a real talent for creating believable, true to life characters and Alice is one of the most engaging fictional characters I've ever come across: obstinate, outspoken, determined, the kind of woman who men fall for and women admire. Because the novel spans Alice's childhood, adolescence and adult life, you feel that you truly understand Alice and why she acts the way she does. Her dysfunctional relationship with her controlling mother, her blossoming relationship with the love of her life, John Friedman- everything is described with such sharp passion that you cannot fail to be drawn into Alice's world.
The language is deceptively simple, making it accessible and an intellectually easy read. But the fact that it is accessible does not take away anything from the writing itself. Each word has been painstakingly chosen, giving the writing a really beautiful poetic feel, and there is a good deal of wry humour injected into the story. However, it is in terms of raw emotion that this book presents a challenge: it is written with such heartfelt warmth that it is an intense and, at times, overwhelming read. From the moment the novel begins, it is obvious that there is some kind of earth-shattering tragedy which underpins the whole story. But such is the author's skill, that when it is finally revealed, it comes as a complete surprise, ripping the rug out from underneath your feet. But despite its painful sadness, it remains a beautiful and uplifting read. This really is contemporary fiction at its best!
I have never read a novel that 'spoke' to me in the same way as this one does- it's one that I have read over and over again and my love for it has not diminished one bit! It's not the kind of chick-lit book you can dip in and out of- this is a novel which you must immerse yourself in; devour it hungrily and really sink your teeth into it!
This is a must-read for fans of contemporary fiction and if you want more than my recommendation, After You'd Gone received immense critical acclaim as well as winning a Betty Trask Award in 2001. Just don't start reading without a full box of tissues on standby!
This book will make you cry! I read this book a few years ago in one sitting. I don't think Maggie O'Farrell is the best writer around at the moment, the book isn't a masterpiece but the story will hook you.
It's an incredibly moving novel focusing on love, loss and grief. Alice, the main character falls madly in love and loses her love in terrible tragic circumstances. This is given away in the first few pages, I'm not spoiling the book for you!
The narrative then skips back and forth between Alice and her relationship and her loss. The relationship and characters are built up perfectly so the reader feels strong affection for them and their relationship making the loss all the more moving.
I recommend this book to anyone, it's definetly a weepy but streets ahead of most chic lit rubbish around. It will probably be ruined when Holywood makes it into a film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan!
On a whim Alice Raikes takes a train to Edinburgh to see her family. She has only been there a few minutes when she sees something which she finds so upsetting that she immediately boards the train back to Kings Cross. Within hours she is hit by a car in London traffic and is taken to hospital in a coma. Was this an accident or a suicide attempt? What was it that she saw in Edinburgh that so upset her? Her family gathers at her bedside as Alice drifts through varying levels of consciousness and her story is revealed in a series of flashbacks.
When I first started this book I made the mistake of picking it up now and again when I had a few minutes to spare. I read about sixty pages in this way and realised that I had no idea of who was who or what was happening. Events are not presented chronologically, you see. Sometimes Alice is the narrator, but at other times the story is told in the third person. If you are going to read this book, allow yourself an hour to get into it. When I did this the characters of Eleanor, Alices grandmother and Ann, her mother, became distinct. Once youre into the story the stream-of-consciousness device works well, but it fails miserably unless you're willing to put in the initial time and effort.
Each chapter is short, almost a vignette illustrating a moment in time. They seem to be unconnected but build into a compelling story, almost like a jigsaw being pieced together. Clues are offered as to the eventual picture but each revelation came as a surprise to me. Once I was past those first sixty pages I couldnt put the book down.
Maggie OFarrell is originally from Northern Ireland, but part of her childhood was spent in Scotland. She draws on this to illustrate the small-town attitudes of North Berwick, where Alices mother, Ann, spends her married life. Ann does not love, has never loved, her husband. What love she has is given obsessively to her children or to another man. The extremes of her emotions are portrayed exquisitely along with the differing attitudes within the family to her infidelity. We see the extent to which her sins affect Alice.
There are some big issues tackled in this novel. Loss (of lovers or family ties) and grief are the main themes, but religious differences, infidelity and strained relationships between parent and child are all introduced. Theyre handled sensitively and with a maturity of understanding. Theres a wonderful eye for detail too, such as Anns blush when she realises why the three mirrors in her adult daughters bedroom are angled in quite the way that they are.
OFarrells characterization of women is perfect, but the touch is perhaps less sure with men. The three women Eleanor, Ann and Alice - dominate the novel, but John, Alices lover and Ben, her father, are less rounded. As a study of loss and grief its exceptional. It made me examine how I would feel if I lost my husband, to the extent that I experienced an overwhelming sense of relief when I heard his voice. I realised too that if I was not in a stable relationship I would be very reluctant to take the chance for fear of what I might lose. This wouldnt be a book which I would find easy reading at the end of a relationship. The Kleenex would be too expensive.
Once youve come to terms with the streamof-consciousness telling of the story youll find that the book is very easy to read. Its all written in simple language Maggie OFarrell isnt an author who needs to prove her intelligence by using big words. The writing is elegant, faultless and confident.
I suspect that this is a book that a woman is more likely to enjoy than a man. Its a love story, albeit with certain twists. I wouldnt expect my husband to enjoy it, although he would certainly appreciate the way its written. On the other hand its far better than chick-lit. Ive recently read (and enjoyed) The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and there are similar themes loss and grief and part of the story being told by a character who is not present in the accepted sense of the word. Theyre both first novels too. This book is much better and lacks the sentimentality of The Lovely Bones.
Im recommending this book. Im also going to buy her other books My Lovers Lover and The Distance Between Us. Maggie OFarrell has a real talent.
Paperback 372 pages (April 5 2001)
Price: £7.99 currently available on Amazon for £6.39
From the opening prologue of this book, I was positively hooked and didn't want to put it down!
In the first few pages, Alice Raikes, the main character, is introduced in an extremely dramatic fashion.
Although you don't know anything about her personality at this stage, she appears to be acting rather erratically....boarding a train in London, impulsively travelling to her home town of Edinburgh and meeting up with her sisters. Minutes later, whilst still at Edinburgh Station, she sees something that unnerves her immensely. So much so that she leaves quickly and returns home where she proceeds to step out into the busy London traffic.
This is a brilliant start to the book. Was it an accident or was it a disturbing attempt at taking her own life? Why did she do it? Extraordinarily, it grips straight away, making you wonder exactly what happened...and what is about to happen.
The unusual story that follows is a superbly constructed piece of writing. It doesn't flow like our typical expectations of a novel. Instead, the reader is taken through a twisting tale consisting of interlocking sections of past and present. Not only does the tense change, but it also cleverly skips from third to first person narrative.
At first, the remarkable style seems quite confusing but with a certain amount of concentration applied, it doesn't take long to get accustomed to the quick changes. Stick with it!
An emotional tale of intrigue, love, family relationships and immense grief unfolds. There's even a bit of religion thrown in for good measure! The story slowly uncovers the complex lives (and secrets!) of three generations of women - Alice, her mother, and her grandmother.
The book is really well written and features brilliant use of characterisation. Personalities develop superbly from start to finish. Towards the end, you actually feel like you could know the characters and understand exactly what is going on in their minds.
At times, some of the excerpts seem to be completely irrelevant and you can be left wondering why you are reading certain things. But you sub-consciously soak them all in, knowing that they all have their own meaning and are helping to unravel the story, eventually linking back to that unforgettable prologue.
Whilst reading, I was constantly expectant of the next part. The whole story draws you in throughout and leaves you in suspense, eager to find out what will happen next. As the intricate web is woven, you are waiting for an explanation or yet another clue that will result in a conclusion to the strong plot. But on the other hand, you don't want the book to end!
Slowly but surely, the pieces of the captivating puzzle fall into place and you can grasp exactly what the motive was behind Alices actions. The book becomes deeply moving and I couldn't help but think 'What would I do if it had happened to me?' It made me realise just how lucky I am - its a story that certainly puts things into perspective!
It was a friend who lent me this book to read but I love its beautifully descriptive and excellently written pages so much, that I am going to buy my own copy. 'After You'd Gone' is most definitely a fabulous example of contemporary fiction.
Published by Review £6.99
Every time I took a break from reading this novel (which was not often, such was its compulsive nature), I reminded myself that Maggie O'Farrell is so young a writer - the same age as myself. I asked myself whether or not I had experienced the feelings that she was describing. Of course, so evocative is her writing, so accurately does she describe emotions, sensations and female thought processes, that I felt she understood me entirely, despite the fact that I have not, thankfully, been in a similar position to that of Alice - the heroine. I was able to imagine that I was really there - that I was Alice. Maggie O'Farrell succeeds in creating a very real character with whom many can identify and sympathise. Alice's mother, however, though perfectly portrayed, is difficult to understand and an incredible antithesis to her daughter. At times I found myself taking a sharp intake of breath....in disbelief of her behaviour. The intricacies of the mother/ daughter relationship are beautifully depicted throughout the novel. Part of the enjoyment of reading this story is derived from the structure of the novel. As a reader you are constantly piecing together the parts to find some kind of sense and explanation. You are kept guessing until the end, which makes the book difficult to put down, but it does not detract from the beauty of the moment you are currently in. After You'd Gone is about human relationships and emotions.....and how a young woman tries to cope when the constructs of her world begin to collapse around her. I have urged all my friends to read it, as a reminder of what really matters.
First, I want to warn all of you who are about to read what follows that my English is that of a non-native speaker since I come from Serbia, if you know where that is. So, if you want to read something really literary, skip this commentary and - turn to the book of Mrs Farrell. However, if you are interested to read my opinion on the book, here it is: I've just read "After You'd Gone" by Maggie O'Farrell, and I am totally enthralled by it. It's a truly magnificent book, one of those few books that manage to capture life as it really is, all the doubts and dilemmas, the essence of love and pain. It is not only a novel about a woman hovering between life and death, it is not a novel simply depicting a great love that ended tragically, or a novel about the secrets of a family. Actually, it is all that, but also much more. It touches the crucial questions in life, and makes us identify even with characters who otherwise we would find all too easy to dislike intensely. Throughout the novel we are given the insight into their motives, their dilemmas, and reasons why they had to make the choices they made. At times the novel is almost unbearably tragic. The language is beautiful, it reminds us of poetry - to that extent each word is carefully chosen and emotion-evoking. Maggie O`Farrell debut novel begins with probably the most heart-stopping opening in all fiction. We are puzzled: Why does she(the heroine) want to take her life? There are no straightforward answers, but many, many questions that inspire us to question our own lives even, our motives, and the principles we adhere to. One thing is certain - the book changed my life. And... it continues to do so.