'After You'd Gone'-- suspense, bonds

March 18, 2001|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

"After You'd Gone," by Maggie O'Farrell. Viking Books. 372 pages. $24.95.

It is a clear case of literary entrapment. A few pages in, "After You'd Gone" grabs the unwary reader with a monumental tease: arriving at Waverley Station, Edinburgh, Alice Raikes glimpses "something so odd and unexpected and sickening" that it drives her straight back to London. Later that day, a suicide attempt leaves her comatose in a hospital bed, uncertain of recovery. The reader's attention snared, this crafty novel never lets go.

The cunningly efficient prologue to British writer Maggie O'Farrell's first book places the reader in instant suspense about the past and the future. What did Alice see, and what did it mean? Will she live or die? To answer the first question will require delving into three generations of family history. This is the pulse-center of the novel: the strong personalities of Alice, her mother, Ann, and her paternal grandmother, Elspeth.

The other major strand of the novel concerns Alice's true love, whom she marries at a serious cost. Engaging and passion-filled, this romantic subplot adds dimension to the novel, but at its own cost of breaking up the unity and intensity of the more deeply felt generational saga. Added onto the dramatics of the opening scene, the multiple disasters of Alice and John's star-crossed love tip the plot into a congestion of tragedies that just overtaxes credulity.

It is in the Raikes women that O'Farrell finds her true subject -- the one that makes this novel stand out as a memorable debut, and a headily promising one. The back-stories of Ann and Elspeth come in sharp, glittering bits that gradually coalesce into a resonant emotional genealogy. In the beginning, young Elspeth is abandoned to boarding school by her missionary parents, who send "scraps of brightly coloured silk, carved ebony elephants or sepia picture postcards of dusty streets" in their stead.

As an adult, Elspeth cleaves close to her own son, keeping him and his family in the Scottish town she had been torn from at age 7. There he and Ann raise two fair mild girls and, in the middle, dark and stormy Alice. Achingly well rendered in shoals and seaweed, the coastal topography of North Berwick seems to penetrate the characters' very souls; at the critical moment in the Edinburgh station, Alice will feel "like a person on a rapidly disappearing piece of sand."

This is a novel in which family ties are continually eroding and being shored up again. Parents regularly fail their children, in more and less spectacular ways. Their failures tend to make the children strong, but in the end O'Farrell insists upon the limits of that strength.

As the connections between past and present become visible, and secrets start to show themselves, the burning question of what Alice saw becomes transformed. The slightly prurient curiosity initially generated by the prologue's wicked hook gives way to a more expansive, humane interest in the coordinates of identity and the frightening vulnerabilities that come with love. Gratifyingly, this fine novel finally proves to be more a work of depth than of cunning.

Laura Demanski is writing a doctoral dissertation on late Victorian British literature and culture at the University of Chicago. She was previously an editor at Simon & Schuster.

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