Review: After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell

After You’d Gone begins at the end: our protagonist Alice sees something nasty in the woodshed (as it were; it’s not really a woodshed) and shortly thereafter gets hit by a car (possibly on purpose) and lapses into a coma.  The rest of the book goes circling and swooping around what happened and why and what it meant to Alice, exploring her past and her mother’s and her grandmother’s, shifting points of view and tenses every few pages.  I know I complained recently about rapidly-shifting narrative focus.  It’s disorienting here too, and there’s no reason to be changing tenses every two seconds, but I forgive Maggie O’Farrell because she makes me feel accepted and understood.

The end, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, happens first.

Not just that, but when I would begin to have a complaint about the way the plot was going, Maggie O’Farrell had already anticipated it and veered away from the danger zone.  LIKE SHE WAS INSIDE MY HEAD.  I read the end and thought, Well, that nasty thing in the woodshed is a bit anticlimactic and predictable, if the whole book’s building up to that revelation it’s going to be rather lame.  But then the something nasty got revealed for the first time midway through the book and left me wondering what further revelations could be forthcoming.  Each time I felt that a certain incident implied that the plot was going to move in an unsatisfactory direction, it swiftly proved otherwise.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I like to have the action of a book spoiled for me, but not the emotional moments, not the psychological motives that underpin the whole thing.  I want to know that (I’m about to spoil Jane Eyre, and I’m warning you because Ana is always heaping fury upon blurb-writers who assume everyone knows the end to all the Classics) Jane and Mr. Rochester end up together, but I don’t want to know what leads Jane to ditch St. John and head back to Thornfield.  To put it another way, I like to know the what and slowly find out the why, rather than getting all the whys before reaching the what. It is like having a black-and-white outline to start with, and slowly coloring it in with all different colors until, ta-da!, you have an entire picture.

After You’d Gone is just like that.  She tells us the what from the beginning: Alice sees something bad, and steps in front of a car, and ends up in a coma.  Events happen out of chronological order.  They happen in a complicated, twisty, emotional order.  You have to be giving the book your reasonably undivided attention, but as long as you do that, it’s very satisfying.  Especially to me, skipper-arounder-in-books.

Other reviews:

Leafing Through Life

That’s it, only two?  Surely there are more.  Tell me if I missed yours!

21 thoughts on “Review: After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell

  1. Oohh I’ve heard about Maggie O’Farrell over at Savidge Reads recently and added her to my wish list then. Now I doubly want to try out one of her books! And this one is sounding really great!

    • You know, I’d forgotten, but I think that’s the post that made me want to read another of Maggie O’Farrell’s books. I wanted to read one of the ones that people thought was less good than her others, but After You’d Gone was the only one the library had. It was very good! I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  2. When I hear about “what before why” I always think of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”– it’s all what and no why.

    I feel like there is a place for end-before-beginning, but I have a lot of trouble with rapidly shifting points of view– or even slow ones if they are not clear through tone or some other significant marker. It sounds like this at least deals with pov transitions well.

    Perhaps I’ll look for it at the library.

    • Yeah, see, this one might not be for you. I tried to read it in little short bursts, thinking that the sections were short so I might as well read one at a time, but that doesn’t work AT ALL. It does need some focused attention. It’s well worth it in the end, though!

      • With books like this, you really have to read them in big chunks. (I’ve learned that the hard way when I had to restart stories more than once).

  3. I love that you have a list of Authors Who Understand Me. That is fantastic. This is a great review of what sounds like a roller coaster ride of an emotional book! I will keep in mind that the BEGINNING IS THE ENDING. I feel that means we never learn what happens to the girl-in-coma, which is very upsetting.

    • Oh, we do find out what happens to her. I say “the end”, but it’s actually more like – nearly the end. There are a few pieces of narrative scattered throughout the book that take place after she goes into a coma. So don’t worry!

      My list of Authors Who Understand Me is way too short. If only there were more Maggie O’Farrells out there. 😛

  4. Wow this book sounds a bit crazy! I think I’d have to be in a very specific mood but it would be good, kind of like a psychological thriller or something. Consider me intrigued!

    • It’s not a psychological thriller in the sense that, I don’t know, The Sixth Sense is a psychological thriller. The suspense is all in the emotions and motives – still a lot of fun to read though.

  5. If I’m in the mood, I enjoy it when the author mixes it up.

    Your skipping around reminds me of a friend of mine. She told me that she’ll read the last page first. Then she starts in the middle and reads to the end. Then, if she liked the book she’ll go back and read from beginning to middle. I always liked that quirk about her.

    • I don’t do that, although my mother sometimes does! I usually start at the beginning, read long enough to get a feel for the premise and the characters, and then skip forward and read the last ten to twenty pages. But it depends on the book.

  6. This sounds like my kind of book – I’m with you – nothing’s more annoying than having to wait until the end to find out something that’s a bit lame anyway. It’s the whys that matter!

    • It is absolutely the whys that matter. Plus, if I’m going to be disappointed in the ending, I like to know as soon as possible and have plenty of time to prepare myself. 😉

  7. I saw something nasty in the woodshed is another family saying, but has to be done in the right Ada Doom voice.

    The coloring in metaphor sheds a little light on my granny’s read-the-end-first practices. It’s been a little tug-of-war between us for years. I reserve it as an insult only for my very most hated authors: “Your book sucks so much, I’m just going to read the end right now. So there.”

    • I can understand that impulse too. When I find myself getting a bit bored with a book, I very frequently skip around and read different sections, to see what I think, and if the end is unsatisfactory, I’ll give it up altogether. It can be a good way to motivate myself to read the rest of a book though! Like when I was reading Revolutionary Road, I was crazy bored and impatient with it at the beginning. Then I read the end and it lent urgency to the whole rest of the book, and I ended up really, really liking it. True story.

  8. Hmm…It sounds like an interesting book to read. I don’t mind finding out what happens at the end, but I don’t want to know how. I like how a book conceals and reveals at the same time, tinkling my curiosity before heading for the finale.

    • I sometimes like to know how; it depends on the book. With very suspenseful books (or films even more so), I like to know the general skeleton of the plot. Otherwise I am content to know the what at the end and let the how unfold.

  9. Ha, and I’ve just done the complaining thing again recently…feeling slightly repetitive at the moment 😛

    I do agree that the why matters more than the what – and I love your having an image coloured in metaphor!

    • No, you are right to complain about it. It’s a perfectly valid point. Not everybody can read every “classic” book in high school! People shouldn’t go around saying the end of Jane Eyre! (I say this with indignant exclamation points like I don’t ever tell anyone the end of anything. :p)

  10. Pingback: Review: The Hand that First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell « Jenny's Books

  11. Pingback: My BookClub Reviews » Blog Archive » After You’d Gone – Maggie O’Farrell

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